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Facts Everyone Should Know About the Victims of the Korean Sex Industry

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Photo Credit: stripes.com
Photo Credit: stripes.com

The majority of sex trafficked girls in Korea who attempt to get out of the sex industry after years of victimization, do so between the ages of twenty to thirty years old, according to the statistics posted on the anti-sex trafficking division of the Korean Salvation Army website. This is due to the lack of demand for “older” women whereas children and younger women are much more desired in the sex industry. In its 2010 report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said Korean men were the prime clients of child prostitutes in Korea, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking also points to Korean men as being the main clients of child prostitutes in Southeast Asia and Pacific islands.

  • Once a girl gets into or is placed into the sex industry, the desire to escape another undesirable situation, far worse than what they have come from, is eminent and just a matter of time. However, as easy as it was to escape their initial situations, they find it almost impossible to do so this time around.
  • Once departure is attempted, the victims are taken captive through coercion using violence, sexual assault, and debt. Continuously extending the victims’ debts is one of the most commonly used methods by traffickers and pimps in order to restrain them from leaving.
  • For many who do escape, they become trapped within their own shame, loss of hope, trauma, drug addiction, lack of employment options, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • There is also a lack of sympathy towards these victims once they are out due to a lack of understanding as to why there is a need to help these women. Most authorities view these women as violators of the law rather than victims. Furthermore, there is a lack of prevention and intervention as well as the inadequacy of protest and voice for victims of trafficking. More action on preventative measures and harsher legislation for sex trafficking is necessary.
  • Due to the silencing of topics such as sex trafficking or male violence against women, there is a noticeable absence in the empowerment of women within all age groups especially in many Korean churches, which result in a type of latency in the Korean community. Not only has the intense educational stance and vigorous academic exercise forced upon young students by most parents in Korea have contributed to increased sex trafficking victimization, the country also has the second highest rate of suicides in the world.
  • In Korea, a punishment for murder is around ten years in prison whereas in another country, it would be a life term. Similarly, the laws for women’s rights are intact however there are no serious ramifications for domestic violence. Male violence against women, especially in a hegemonic and patriarchal society such as the one in Korea transcends into increased sex trafficking with more sex victims who are still in their youths.
  • Churches in Korea can do more within this realm by taking action with legislators to not only create but also enforce harsher laws for crimes of domestic violence than the ones in place. [1]
  • Engaging with legislators is essential as the Korean government will not take initiative towards finding a solution to domestic violence or sex trafficking since they do not view these as urgent or significant problems. As Korea continues to progress and grow as a nation, the sex trafficking industry is also flourishing.
  • Because Koreans were so poor only a few decades ago, money is still a fairly new concept to the country. No one wants to go back to being a third world country therefore people are overworked and turn to the sex industry as an outlet for their high level of stress.
  • During the Korean War, the Korean government wanted to relieve and keep up the morale of the American troops who were deployed into South Korea to help them. So, the government lured women into brothels in areas called Kijichon and Yong Ju Gol where most American army bases were located. Forced and voluntary prostitution in militarism resulted in new terms for women such as Western Princesses, Comfort Women, and Juicy Girls. After the war was over and the troops headed home, the brothels remained open and continued to thrive with the locals and tourists as years passed. Today, it is one of the largest red light districts with huge parking lots that accommodate visitors and customers. The land on which these brothels sit on are owned by the Korean federal government who does nothing to shut these places down as many of them are most likely customers themselves or have been in the past.
  • This issue with the American soldiers who are in Korea mimics the past and brings back the old ghosts of the “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery for the Japanese soldiers. The only difference between these two instances is that with the most current occurrences, the Korean government has direct involvement in encouraging the Korean women of the nation to submit to the American soldiers in order to keep them satisfied in the country for as long as possible. Nothing has been done to rectify this predicament, and churches in that area have not addressed this problematic situation. An article from the NY Times has stated:

Many former prostitutes live in the camp towns, isolated from mainstream society, which shuns them. Most are poor. Some are haunted by the memories of the mixed-race children they put up for adoption overseas.

Jeon, 71, who agreed to talk only if she was identified by just her surname, said she was an 18-year-old war orphan in 1956 when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near the border with North Korea. She had a son in the 1960s, but she became convinced that he would have a better future in the United States and gave him up for adoption when he was 13.

About 10 years ago, her son, now an American soldier, returned to visit. She told him to forget her.

“I failed as a mother,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives on welfare checks and the little cash she earns selling items she picks from other people’s trash. “I have no right to depend on him now.”

“The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she said. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”

Photo Credit: nytimes.com
Photo Credit: nytimes.com
  • Typically, the government’s stance on the domestic violence and sex trafficking issues are not those of abolition but more towards decreasing the spreading of sexual diseases between sex workers.
  • Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, and the government has verbalized the need to recognize the women as victims and not perpetrators. However these victimized women who need mental, medical, emotional, and post-trauma relief once they have been released from bondage have had to endure harsh stigmatization, depression, rejection from society, shame, and prosecution for violating laws.
  • As for the service towards the American troops stationed in Korea, no word yet on any type of retribution or rehabilitation for the women who were coerced into slavery for the “good” of the country.

God, help Korea and the Korean communities around the world.


[1] in 1997: the Special Act on Domestic Violence (referred to as the “Punishment Act”), and the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Victim Protection Act (“Protection Act”). Once the ‘Punishment Act’ and the ‘Protection Act’ were enacted.

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The Magdalena House for Women of the Sex Industry

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the-magdalena-house

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!