written by gkim
I am still in awe that I got to meet one of the most amazing women in Korea a couple of weeks ago. At the same time, I am deeply saddened and troubled after learning about the type of sex trafficking she deals with on a daily basis. As we all know, there are so many different types of trafficking and sex slavery going on in all parts of Korea at any given time, but her story shed a new light on a type of sex trafficking that I did not know existed in this country. Her name is Soo Mee Park, and she runs the one and only rescue trafficking shelter in Korea that solely supports foreign sex slaves in numerous parts of Korea, especially those around the US army bases.
Her center, Durebang, also known as My Sister’s Place, is a NGO, and it is a light in the darkest industry in South Korea–that of sex trafficking. Durebang helps and specializes in rescuing foreign women in prostitution with various backgrounds and different challenges, particularly those who are/were related with US soldiers stationed in the country. Soo Mee Park wants these women to find hope, self-respect, and a new sense of life. This center was founded in March 1986 in Uijeongbu, Korea. Currently, in Uijeongbu, they take care of a large number of senior citizens who were forced into prostitution for the US army during the Korean War and are now ailing grandmothers. A second location was opened in Pyeongtaek in 2009, which is a crucial locale because many US military soldiers have been and are still being relocated to this area today. This means many women have and will subsequently follow them. Durebang fights for the respect, integrity and equality of the women working in the US clubs on Korean soil and for the eradication of prostitution in militarism and its consequential problems. For that purpose Durebang has assisted and accompanied dozens of foreign women who have been forced into sex slavery.
The majority of the women Soo Mee Park comes into contact with are from the Philippines, however there is a diversity of foreign women among these sex slaves. They have immigrated to Korea with legal E-6 entertainment visas to work around the camptowns (areas around the US army bases in Korea). These women who are called “entertainers” are not real singers or performers as their visas classify them to be. They are actually filling in the empty positions that have been left by forced sex slaves and prostitutes from the time of the Korean War. These E-6 visas are extremely problematic, and furthermore, the Korean government is fully aware of how these visas are being utilized. The authorities do nothing to intervene…they speak rules that they do not enforce. So although the law against prostitution and the trafficking of women exists in Korea, there is no law which protects the vulnerable victims of the sex industry. Also, the law that is in place against prostitution and its perpetrators is not enforced properly, therefore traffickers and pimps are given more control and power while the sex slaves become more victimized. Bottom line: the Korean law doesn’t help victims, and the government doesn’t believe that this type of law would be functional. Even if there is a law, it’s almost impossible for the sex slaves to sue their traffickers. It is extremely complicated to fight for the rights of Korean women who have been trafficked and that much more harder for foreigners. This ties in with the physical aspect of trafficking where people are physically forced into the country, the psychological side where people have been persuaded or tricked into coming, and the reality that some women are completely aware and agreeable to prostituting themselves. Because the government finds it imperative to distinguish the ways the women have entered the sex industry in Korea, there is a lack in urgency to investigate thoroughly or assist these women. Yes, the difficulty to differentiate between how the foreign and some native women were trafficked into the industry is a reality, however it seems that this has also become a blatant excuse for the government to ignore the plight of these victims, brush it off their agendas, and treat all of them as violators of the law rather than victims of human trafficking.
In order to rescue and ensure the safety of these women, identifying the establishments that recruit and enslave these women is crucial. The volunteers go out to the juicy bars (bars where foreign girls are enslaved as sex workers) and brothels. All of the women Durebang works with are in or around the army bases or rural areas with heavy foreign presence. Pyongtaek is one of the lands as described in the latter. 15% of the land in Pyongtaek has been put aside by law for foreign enterprises, Native Koreans are not allowed to build on this land. Many of the buildings there have huge international signs with hundreds of foreign employees. In places like Pyongtaek, the clients of the sex industry can vary in ethnicity from all over the world. Around the army bases however, the men who frequent these “clubs” are generally from the US army regardless of the bans on juicy bars, and such clubs. We must also keep in mind that in Korea, Korean men are the number one clients of prostitutes. According to the Korean Institute of Criminology, one-fifth of Korean men buy sex at least four times a month.
Currently, there are 20 ongoing cases that Durebang is handling. This may sound like just a handful, however gathering sufficient evidence, facts, documents, and testimonies for even one case is extremely difficult and time-consuming due to the authoritarian and legalistic roadblocks. SooMee Park shared a story about a very unique case. Although many of the women in the Korean sex industry have been coerced, there are some who knowingly get into the business as well. Case in point: There was a young woman who was a prostitute from Colombia, where prostitution is legalized and where there is a level of protection for the prostitutes. There are even campaigns to advocate condom usage. This woman worked independently selling her body. She was able to decide when, where, how…and condoms were always used per her decision. This is not to say that prostitution should be considered a career to be pursued in any way. Once she was recruited by the trafficker, who glamorized the “entertainment” industry for the American soldiers in Korea saying that she would make 10x more, and subsequently put on a plane, she quickly found herself in a situation that was completely different from the one she was in back home. She had no say or power in when, where, or how. She was forced to sell her body when she didn’t want to. She was forced to have sex without condoms. She was also repeatedly raped by her traffickers and abused when she tried to protest. This woman, having come from a country where the law protected the prostitutes’ rights, decided to call the authorities in Korea and report her situation. This is when her problems escalated even more. When they inquired if she knew she would be coming to Korea to sell her body, she unknowingly answered yes. She was not aware that prostitution was illegal in Korea. Finally, when she was rescued, she was treated as a violator of the law and threatened with deportation back to her own country even though she had been raped and forced into sex work at times she did not consent. They even questioned how she was able to contact the authorities if she was really in bondage and enslaved. The government views are that these women want to get Korean citizenship through the E-6 visa and marry American soliders in order to live the “American Dream.” It seems to me that these are their public views which help them sleep at night…but in reality, they are fully aware of what is happening. This type of sex trafficking is just one type of the many sex trafficking outlets in Korea and around the world.
I have received and read many attacks on what Durebang is doing for these women. Some people say that this organization is just fighting against the USA and its army. However this is entirely untrue. This organization actually understands that the US government has done everything they can to put legislation in place to prevent the army from getting involved with the sex industry. However, it is the Korean government that refuses to be vigilant to this problem. They are not keen on enforcing harsher and stricter punishments or supervision. They say that this is a necessary constituent of Korean society. Another common attack from opposition of Durebang is that they have a hatred towards Caucasians. This is ridiculous as we all know that the US army does not solely consist of Caucasians, especially in South Korea. Besides, it is no secret that Korean men are the number one seekers of prostitutes in Korea. However this organization chooses to specialize in helping the foreign women who don’t have a voice in the country. Praise the Lord for Soo Mee Park and Durebang.
(Read more in My Sister’s Place (두레방 Durebang ), a Rescue Shelter for Foreign Sex Workers in South Korea [part 2] here.