The Korean perception of the Korean sex industry is quite different from others. The most common statements and inquiries I seem to get from fellow Koreans are, “Well, what about the girls who enter the sex industry voluntarily when they’re adults? What about the women who do it to buy luxurious things? They say they love what they do. It’s their own choice. Should I feel sorry for them when they want to work in that industry?” To the modern day abolitionist who has done extensive research into the sex industry and trafficking, these responses could sound very typical. Unfortunately, in the Korean society, especially the Korean American society, these are valid perceptions that people will probably form. Why?
First of all, the bottom line is that whether entered voluntarily or forced into the sex industry, all of these human beings are victims because they are victimized in one way or another, even if some may be unaware of the victimization. Secondly, of course there are many problems to the types of statements above that mostly Koreans seem to make and believe in because not all of the girls who get into the industry voluntarily love what they do. In fact, almost every single sex worker in the industry, who has been rescued or has had the opportunity to leave on their own, has expressed or endured immense regret, shamefulness, embarrassment, stigmatization, depressive disorders, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, mental and emotional pain, anger, resentment, self-hatred, and rejection from society. Even the prostitutes who fight for the right to sell their bodies, the most famous porn stars in the world, and the strippers who fight for the right to strip down naked all have public personas, where they say they love men, sex, and money. In reality, when they are alone, they have confessed that it is just a public persona that they must portray at all times in order to continue earning a living and keeping their guards up.
On the other hand, these skewed Korean perceptions that the sex industry workers love what they do could be seen as valid to a certain extent. The reason is because there are so many young Korean girls, who come from good families, getting into the industry willingly in Korean communities. We see them driving in super luxurious cars and living in fancy high-rise apartments, carrying and wearing expensive, fashionable items, buying whatever they want, living a normal life during the day and carrying on a secretive life in the sex industry at night. Do I believe that some of these women ruin it for the rest of the sex slaves? Yes, of course. But we cannot separate these two types of sex workers and simply label one group as greedy, sex addicts and the other as forced sex slaves. All of these women are victims of the pitfalls of the sex industry. And many who enter voluntarily end up realizing they cannot leave voluntarily when they wish to. This is not only in the physical sense. We must also understand that there are millions who are involuntarily getting into the industry as well. These women and children are forced into physical bondage as well as emotional, spiritual, and mental bondage. There are many children who escape the industry when they are adults. They have stated that these pimps and madams treat them like family and even warn them against having sex for money. Yet at the same time, they will thrust men into their lives and tell the them to get to know these men. They tell them to go after the money, not the men. Thus, the girls eventually succumb to having sex with these men for money. Sometimes, the pimps and sex establishment business owners will brainwash the child by seemingly caring for them. They will coax the child to become more and more open to devious sex acts using tactics and strategies to make them feel as if they have no other options in life. A number of these victims develop Stockholm Syndrome, which is a psychological effect where hostages and victims develop sympathy and affection towards their traffickers and pimps.
It is much worse for a child who enters voluntarily or who is trafficked against his/her own will into the sex industry. The traction and mind control that a trafficker has over a young child can be very manipulative and atrocious. Many times, traffickers threaten these victims saying that they will be killed, mutilated, and stuffed in the gutter if they pursue an escape from the industry. I have beeThere are also instances where these sex slaves are forcefully given drugs so that when they are eventually rescued, they actually end up going back to the brothels on their own due to the stronghold of the drugs which are overpowering their lives. These girls are being exploited in every which way possible, and the men who frequent these types of establishments either don’t care or are unaware. Let’s make them care! Let’s spread awareness! Even room salons (room bangs) or hostess bars which appear harmless are actually refined brothels. Many of these women who work in these types of establishments in the States are tricked and trafficked into the States under false identities. There is also a growing trend of American women who are getting into this industry for the “quick and easy” money.
Remember–just because there’s a happy-looking girl acting like she wants to have sex with a customer or even stating that she loves her job, nine out of ten times, this is a façade.
This also trickles into the porn industry as well as strip clubs and online sex chat rooms. Sexual exploitation makes up 79% of human trafficking, including forced stripping, pornography, massage services, and prostitution. Behind closed doors, these sex slaves live in terror, shame, guilt, fear, and without any hope. They are the most vulnerable humans on Earth. We must spread the word to help stop this injustice from continuing on! The complete abolition of sex trafficking in our lifetime is imperative and affects each and every person in the world today.
written by gkim
Currently, the majority of Korean and Korean-American churches do not directly address the issues of sex trafficking to their ministry or congregation therefore contributing even more to the societal taboos in the Korean culture. Onnuri English Ministry, led by Pastor Eddie Byun, is one of the only churches in S. Korea that adamantly prays for and incorporates this issue into their ministry duties as well as during the weekly sermons. Onnuri English Ministry’s justice ministry Hope Be Restored, which Pastor Eddie Byun founded, is a model for how other churches can set up their own justice ministries.
Korean and Korean-American churches must adopt the positions of initial prevention or intervention as the government policies which are in place fail to effectively do so. More responsibility should be taken upon by and distributed amongst the ministry to expose these issues by implementing systematic guidelines and discussion openly and outwardly with its congregation on a regular basis. This is essentially necessary for the Korean society which has become so immersed into the sex industry that it’s practically a silent part of the culture. Relying on the government to take on this task is effective only to a certain point. Although the U.S. government has taken increased measures on eradicating and eliminating the trafficking industry, the sex industry itself is growing out of control. Also government officials can only go so far with aftercare. God heals people. People cannot heal each other. But we can help others become closer to God so that they may be healed. The church can increase awareness within youth to adult age groups as well as through outreach programs incorporating detailed education of the dangers and consequences of sex trafficking . It is imperative to incorporate these types of teachings in the church as pedagogies do not yet do so in Korea. The church needs to place more emphasis on the sanctity of justice, faith, spirituality, and divinity by starkly contrasting these virtues over elitist education, economic status, materialism, and competition in the Korean society. Educating the youth about the sacredness of virginity in both males and females is also necessary however with the current statistical data, it is clear that there must be a much more aggressive approach to educating men about the sanctity of virginity and marriage as Korean men are the number one seekers of child prostitutes in Asia according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking. Since the church is silent in regards to sexual matters, and sex talks are usually taboo in the general Korean society, it becomes problematic for the future of Korea. When the church does not address current societal issues about the sex industry, the industry then grows and becomes more sustainable and resilient against the small population of abolitionists who are working to fight against the violence against women within modern day slavery. Young Christians especially need to be educated separately in an orientation on a regular basis so that they do not fall into the pitfalls of the sex industry.
Children of Korean descent are confined into a robotic education system starting at a very young age. The stress from an overload of information and highly competitive society actually work against the youth than for them, particularly in many instances of broken or abuse-ridden homes. The church should not only take an educational approach in trying to prevent and decrease the number of teenage runaways by utilizing educational tools in the ecclesia, but the ministry leaders must also be aggressive in meeting with legislators and getting Congress involved to create harsher laws and punishments for violence in the home that instigates children to flee their own homes as well. Churches must be more open and vocal towards violence against women issues period. When churches do not address such issues on a regular basis, this sends a message to the victims of abuse that these types of topics are shameful and should be kept locked in the home. The children who are born into homes with domestic violence become witness to their mothers being subjugated to physical violence and doing nothing about it. Therefore, this contributes to more instability within the children and further escalates the possibilities of running away from home, which thus leads to increased child slavery and sex trafficking. There are many churches that take this one step further and preach about forgiveness and submission on the woman’s part. This results in problems within the home remaining stagnant. It also increases the chances that the children in these families will grow up to be just like their abusive fathers or submissive mothers. This further perpetuates the vicious cycle of teenage runways who end up in the sex industry.
If these issues are openly discussed during sermons on a weekly basis, this can directly target the perpetrators in the church and clearly expose the ramifications for this type of behavior. The ministry needs to make it clear that any type of violence against women will not be tolerated. They should reach out to victims or intervene through the power of divinity openly and outwardly so that female victims may benefit and go through a process of healing from prayer and hearing the word of God.
Victims of sex trafficking who have post-traumatic disorder or other types of mental and emotional trauma typically take three to ten years to adjust and assimilate back into a normal life. This duration can potentially be dramatically decreased through spiritual healing programs in the church. Thus, the church can become a voice for those who are suffering silently. To conclude, through types of sometimes condoned violence against women in Korea, the sex trafficking industry has also quietly been adopted and grown into mainstream culture. The country’s economy and corporate designations have become intertwined with trafficking. Many people may frown upon the fact that a church would take upon such issues and publicize them–saying that the church should only focus on the gospel. But, this is a skewed perception of Christianity. We, as Christians, should show the world what God’s justice and love can do! It is inexcusable that churches do not make it a priority to end modern day slavery in Korean society which is driven by the sex industry. Churches should enforce more education and move towards progression with legislation and outreach through the ministry as this is an ecclesial injustice as well as a social injustice.
written by gkim
Recently, I had the honor of meeting OckJeong Lee, chief director of the Magdalena House, who has been running a shelter for trafficked women located in Yongsan, Korea for the past 28 years. She has dedicated her life to serving God by caring for vulnerable women who have been enslaved into brothels. The Magdalena House was first created in 1985 in a wayward shelter by OckJeong Lee as a place of refuge for prostitutes who were seeking a way out of the sex industry. The name was derived from the biblical Mary Magdalene who was persecuted and cursed for being a prostitute however transformed herself through the love of Christ and became one of the most beloved by Jesus. The hope is that these prostitutes will also find and know Christ and have their lives transformed by God as Mary Magdalene did. In 2005, it became a government-funded organization through the Catholic Social Work Coalition. Currently, there are 24 women who are part of the staff at Magdalena.
OckJeong Lee says that she never imagined she would be serving God in this way. She was an insurance broker working in Yongsan back in the eighties when she became witness to something very disturbing. An older man was trying to sexual molest a five year old girl who was sleeping on the floor outside the train station. So she contacted the police immediately, and when they came, the girl’s mother who was a prostitute working at the station’s neighboring red light district, scolded OckJeong Lee for interfering with a stranger’s child. This mother was obviously concerned with the fact that she could have been arrested and jailed for prostitution. Conclusively, the authorities reprimanded the mother for leaving her daughter in the street rather than charge this man with child molestation. OckJeong was dumbfounded at how things panned out after she tried to do, what she believed, was the right thing. This is how she began her service and journey almost three decades ago.
When starting the Magdalena House, one of the primary goals of OckJeong Lee was to discover what the specific needs of these women were and to provide for them as Christ does for us every day. She did not have any intentions of impelling or converting them with her personal religious beliefs of Catholicism. Moreover, she took an open approach to the religions of all of the women, who were mostly shamanists, while dutifully and privately serving under God’s umbrella in her heart. At times, she would even participate (only on the surface) with the shamanistic rituals the pimps and the women would observe such as hiring a shaman to come to a brothel with a pig’s head in order to idolize or worship this object by bowing or praying to it. These rituals were very costly–almost 20,000,000 KRW–and the women were obligated to pay for them. Of course, with her hidden agenda in tow, OckJeong Lee would casually drop lines to the pimps and recommend that they may try a cheaper ritual such as hiring a Catholic priest who could come with food for days at the cost of just 30,000 KRW. Due to her tireless efforts, openness, and dedication, a lot of women have actually ended up finding God and meeting Christ on their own will over the years.
The initial method she implemented in her shelter to meet her objectives in saving these women was to dine together and become closer with them through the nourishment of food. She says that to serve someone food which is well prepared and delicious, in a courteous manner, and to dine together, is a sign of equality and joy amongst human beings and a symbol of respect for one another. The purpose is to give these women a sense of self-worth, completely opposing the protocols of the brothels where the women were forbidden to eat with the pimps as they were seen as too dirty and worthless to
share food with at the same table.
Magdalena House also provides medical, legal, and life counseling. Not only do the women who come through have the option of receiving formal training for skill sets that they can utilize in the workforce, but they are also cherished and surrounded by laughter and joy while living in this shelter. OckJeong Lee says that these women are fully aware that their choices to work at these brothels are not moral or righteous. However the last thing that these women want to hear is confirmation of this very awareness. So instead, she tries to instill a sense of stability as well as fond memories while they are being rehabilitated in her shelter. She does whatever it is to create an atmosphere of homeliness so that these women who sometimes return back to the brothels for whatever reasons, know that they can always come back to a safe house where they will be protected, cared for, respected, nourished, fed, and treated with love. Basically, they start off socializing with each other and eating together. One of the games they play is “go-stop,” which is a popular Korean card game comparable to poker. Due to the extensive eating and socializing, some outsiders have expressed skepticism and had misconceptions of this shelter saying that all they do is eat and play. However, OckJeong Lee says that one must not forget her underlying objective which has not wavered once in the past 28 years, and that is to create a safe, comfortable haven for these women, gain their trust, hinder them from digressing back to prostitution, and create a sense of stability. She says that these baby steps taken by eating and socializing is something that is imperative in obtaining the ultimate goal to liberate these women from the strongholds of sexual labor. Some women go back to these brothels because they are scared. It is all they have known. They have no other life experiences and feel inadequate and unfit for society. Some others who try to earn an honest living end up going back because the money they make is meager compared to what they earned as a prostitute. Even when some of the women do end up going back to the brothels, OckJeong Lee will tell them to make a lot of money and bring back some good meat to share at the dinner table, hoping to instill a reason inside them to return to Magdalena soon. By doing this, she also means to emphasize the equality of income between them all and clarify to the women that their money is not dirty and other people’s money is not any cleaner or better than theirs. Although there are setbacks and digressions through all of these women’s journeys in and out of the Magdalena House, many do end up leaving the brothels for good and enduring their rehabilitations until the end where they become fully ready to move on.
Once the women have spent enough time in this shelter, and they get through a year or so of not returning to the brothels, they become ready to find work and fit into mainstream society. The Magdalena House offers training in different fields of work. There was even a group of brothel workers who volunteered in the Magdalena House’s Field Worker Program in the Philippines. They traveled with OckJeong Lee to aid with the sex trafficking there. She says that there is no woman who can counsel a prostitute better than an ex-prostitute. A few of the current staff members and counselors at the Magdalena House are ex-prostitutes who have turned their lives around and are now guiding others into doing so, too. OckJeong speaks of how these women have cried and framed their first “real” paycheck stubs after being employed at the Magdalena House.
Although there are many successful stories, there have been many outcomes not so positive as well. Some of the women who have gone in and out of the Magdalena House have committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Han River, have been struck and killed by venereal diseases, have gotten into accidents, or have even been burned alive in fires ignited by customers with evil intentions. When these types of incidents occur, the Magdalena House contacts their families. Most of the time, their own families try to deny them. Some of these women did not even get the chance to finish elementary school because their families come from poverty. Some were raped in day care centers. Some come from broken homes. The list goes on. When ultimate tragedy strikes and family members are nowhere to be found, OckJeong Lee conducts funerals for these women along with the staff members and the brothel workers. The funerals are handled with so much devotion and care that the brothel workers often tell OckJeong Lee that when they die, they wish to have funerals such as these as well.
Currently the new focus of the Magdalena House is to clear any types of criminal history on public records for these women. The women who have been arrested by policemen have usually been jailed as violators of the law rather than victims. There is a shortage of prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation within the country for victims of the sex industry. There is also a huge discrimination for their pasts. When companies conduct background checks and find out that the job seeker was arrested for prostitution, they refuse to hire them. These ex-prostitutes work hard to become self-sufficient in the shelter—then society ends up rejecting them. OckJeong states that everyone must help them become full-fledged members of society. Just as Jesus accepted us, we should accept them. She says she hopes that just as she got happily “stuck” doing this work for God, she hopes that all of us get happily “stuck,” too. God Bless OckJeong Lee and the Magdalena House!