korean sex industry
written by gkim
This entrance to one of the “refined” brothels which are called Room Salons or Room Bangs in the Korean community, where hostesses work (or Hobbars, where hosts work), seems to be a glass enclosure just protruding upwards from the ground. Looks a bit shady, doesn’t it? The room salons don’t all look like this, but this one caught my eye because of the entryway. It is seemingly wide and the first step you take will dip you onto a stairwell that descends downwards into a hell of a place for mostly rich male or female customers. You can’t actually see the establishment because it’s built way below the street. Why would men or women want to come to places like these? The environment and ambiance are fully catered to make every customer feel like a potentate. Because the workers who work at these places dress elegantly and are usually very persuasive and seductive–not trashy–with their language, the customers don’t feel as if they are involved in any type of misconduct with per say a street-walking prostitute.
Room salons in all over the world operate similarly to the ones in South Korea. There are chauffeurs who pick up and bring non-driving customers to these places. Also, there is always a valet attendant at the front, usually on the side. Not only does the valet attendant direct his fellow employees to park or retrieve people’s cars, he also makes sure that no “stray cats” make their way downstairs. What happens when someone reaches the bottom of this stairwell with a party of four let’s say? “ANYONGHASAYO!” (“Hello” in Korean) The front host will greet them and give them a gracious bow. They’ll be asked how many are in the party if they haven’t already called to make a reservation–which is usually the protocol. Then they’ll be ushered into a grandiose looking room that usually has plush leather seating surrounding three sides of the room. A large table is at the center and a karaoke machine attached to a television screen sits in the corner facing the seating area. Once in a while, males will bring along females but 95% of the time, men won’t bring women. Some may say that the room salon world is boring, trivial, or uncontroversial. Who doesn’t know about sexual exploitation in Asia, right? However, the room salon business makes up a huge part of the sex trafficking business industry in Korean communities all around the U.S.A. They have tiers–like a caste system of some sort where there are high-level room salons and low- level room salons. The levels are based on how beautiful and smart the women who work there are. The higher the level, the costlier it is to receive entertainment from there. These room salons are a huge problem in Korea and the States because they can easily be disguised as noraebangs (karaoke rooms). Therefore, it is much harder for them to be cited or caught as locations of trafficking. Also, because sex does not usually occur on the premises or in the rooms, it is much easier for people to believe that this is an acceptable form of entertainment or that the workers are not being coerced into doing anything. Many of the women who work here are violated every night even though they may not have sex with customers all the time.
Once the party has been seated, the host will leave, and a madam will come inside. She’ll be very beautiful and elegant looking, usually decked out in jewels and expensive clothes and shoes. She’ll chat with the party and get to know what type of business they’re in and take their order for alcohol. Now, the alcohol is ridiculously overpriced here. A bottle of whiskey that you would be able to buy for under $100 at the supermarket or liquor store would cost you anywhere from $1500 to about $2000 here. This would include a side plate of sliced fruit, water bottles, and nuts. Next, the madam will leave to fetch the room salon girls (or guys if it is a hobbar). Depending on the town, city, and country, there can be anywhere from 20-300 girls working in one night. I have seen 20 girls working in small room salons in Santa Clara, California all the way to 300 girls working in room salons in Siem Reap, Cambodia. And yes, the ones in Cambodia are Korean-owned. The madam will bring in about 4-5 girls at a time and she’ll have them line up in front of the entire party. She’ll do this until all of the available girls have been seen. Then each customer will tell the madam which girl he liked by describing her attire or telling her he liked the far right girl in the second round of girls. The madam will bring in all of the girls that have been chosen by each customer.
In the lower caste of room salons, the working girls are required to lift their skirts up as they walk inside in front of the customers. The girls are not allowed to wear undergarments. Then the males choose the girls based on what the girls look like underneath their skirts. Extremely disturbing. Even more heinous is that these lower caste room salons are popular for their “talented” girls. The girls are forced to do things such as get butt-naked on the center of the table, put knife handles up their crotches, and cut fruit using their vaginal muscles to control the knife or do other types of tricks. The humiliation these girls go through is usually met with ignorance from outsiders who hear about these acts. Most people believe that these workers are doing what they love and are not being victimized or harmed in any way.
After the customers have taken their pick of girls, they begin to drink. Each customer will have a girl beside them, pouring them drinks, feeding them fruit, starting up a conversation, and lighting cigarettes for them. If a customer requests a “band,” from the madam, a guy with a guitar will come in and play while one of the girls sing along on the karaoke machine. Oftentimes, someone will bang along on a tambourine. The parties in each room get pretty loud. Now, if a girl is very popular, she will have multiple customers across several rooms. She will have to run back and forth spending a certain amount of time with her partner in each room. One girl I met stated that she felt like a bouncing ball when she had more than two customers. She couldn’t even remember who she met the night before when she woke up the next day from her drunken stupor. When there are multiple customers at one time, the girls get sloshed off of the immense amount of alcohol they are required to consume. The customers who frequent room salons are known to be pretty touchy-feely with the girls. They’ll stick their hands into their shirts while sitting in front of everyone else and start fondling the girls. Most of the girls I interviewed were so desensitized to such touching and kissing that their facial expressions didn’t change the slightest bit when the men did this. Can you imagine sitting in a room with about five grown men just fondling girls who are dressed in decadent attire and draped in fancy jewelry and watches, and furthermore, these girls are just nonchalantly chattering away next to them as if they can’t feel anything that is happening to their bodies because they are so desensitized? These are God’s beautiful daughters whom He loves very dearly. A lot of these girls have been brainwashed, coerced through threats of shame, forced into debt bondage, or have had their passports and IDs confiscated after being trafficked across borders. The madams usually encourage the girls to drink more and go home with the customers. It is customary and usually mandatory for each customer to tip their own girl. In the US, room salon girls are usually tipped $100-$300 from each customer. Sometimes, very wealthy customers will pay off the girls’ debt with the room salon, which can be anywhere from $5000-$20,000. Usually, girls who are trafficked across borders have higher debt than Korean American girls and are trapped in peonage. Because it seems that these girls get in voluntarily to make a lot of money and sometimes drive luxurious cars and wear expensive clothing, many Koreans and others place judgement on them and assume they deserve to be oppressed, raped, violated, and mistreated. These are God’s beautiful daughters and our sisters in Christ. We must strive to bring justice on every level for the Lord instead of turning a blind eye and merely criticizing or looking down upon workers. Korean room salons in other countries such as Cambodia or Thailand operate with girls who work for tips as low as $5 per customer.
Many Korean people argue that room salons and hobbars are not hosting any illegal activities. They defend these types of hostess establishments saying it should be a person’s right to work where they want to and that sex doesn’t occur there. I wonder–would these same people care if their own daughters or sisters worked in one? Yes it is true that sex rarely occurs inside these places, but it is also true that sex is highly promoted and very encouraged for monetary exchange after hours outside of the establishment. Furthermore, these women are extremely objectified and treated as if they are for sale. These women are not given respectful treatment as men view them as their sex objects.
Who frequents these room salons? 90% of Korean American companies have had sex entertainment and hosted parties for out-of-town guests in this places. Furthermore, they are known to expense them as corporate meals and entertainment. Receipts may reflect very high amounts for one night out, however any traces of illegal activities or hostess services are not shown on them. Therefore, during audits or on expense reports, these costs are usually overlooked. Even Korean American media companies such as newspaper, radio, and television outlets have departments who go to room salons after company dinners. When crimes are committed inside or are linked to room salons they frequent, or if any suspicious activity is in question, these media outlets usually do not investigate or pursue these stories in-depth. Many of these establishments continue to conduct business by staying very publicly visible yet silently hidden at the same time.
How do we recognize room salons in cities of America? Here are some easy ways to distinguish or identify them:
- They are almost always around or in Korean communities, towns, or cities.
- They are never open for business during the day.
- They will not allow you to stay and drink with your party unless each person pays for their own individual hostess or host from that venue to entertain them for the evening–even if you bring your own date.
- If they have an actual bar, they will not serve you a drink at the bar, especially after about 10pm.
- The buildings or storefronts will have vague signage or no signage at all. There will be names on the signs with no actual description of the type of business.
- There are usually no windows on any side of the business structure, however if there are any, they are tinted to be pitch-black so that you cannot see inside at all.
- You cannot rent the rooms as a karaoke room unless you pay the extravagant price for a bottle of alcohol and pay for a hostess or host to be seated next to you.
- There will almost always be a valet attendant surrounded by many chauffeurs or illegal Korean taxi drivers.
- There will always be one room filled with girls somewhere inside, waiting to be called into rooms with customers.
- Most of the girls who work at room salons will not be able to speak English as they have been trafficked across borders.
If you are a worker wanting to get out of this industry, a person contemplating on working in a room salon, an ex-worker trying to avoid stigmatization and attacks or dealing with guilt and shame, a trafficker selling girls into the industry, a room salon owner, a taxi driver driving the girls and johns to and fro, or anyone who is associated or a supporter of the industry, please contact us. There are many people who would like to help you, pray with you, and love you in the name of Christ.
It is so important to remember that we must not support these types of businesses. Furthermore, we must not simply pass by and submit to the injustices of oppression that the girls are enduring. Doing nothing is doing something. Being silent speaks volumes. It is up to us as Christians to bring these places into the light and seek justice for Christ. We must be a voice in the Korean community and stand up for what is right. Pray that the business owners may come to know Christ and turn their businesses into places of hope for our sisters, daughters, and friends who are trapped physically, mentally, and emotionally in this industry. Lord, convict their hearts so that they will stop oppressing and selling our sisters for the love of money! Let us pray that the evil chains of slavery may be broken throughout Koreatown–the chains that link everyone together–even the ones who are not directly involved in the sex industry yet are allowing this to happen by staying silent. Finally, please be in prayer for the johns of the community who frequent these types of establishments thinking they are good environments for fun, business meetings, guest entertaining, and relaxation. Let the veil that is covering the eyes of this community be lifted away in Jesus’ name!
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. 
- 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.”
- 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.
 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.
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.