June 29, 2005

S.Korean sex workers demand rights

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - More than 1,000 South Korean sex workersrallied Wednesday demanding recognition as legitimate membersof society and the withdrawal of an anti-prostitution law theysay threatens their livelihoods and their health.

The law, which calls for jail terms of up to 10 years orsteep fines for people who force women to work in brothels,went into force in September. It has cut business and thewomen's income by more than half, sex workers and brothelowners said.

"Why is the government saying no when we are saying we willwork as ordinary citizens and pay our taxes?" said a29-year-old sex worker at the rally, who declined to give herreal name and said she goes by the nickname Aerang.

Government support for prostitutes who opt to leave thetrade is not nearly enough to start a small business or getcareer training, she said.

"This is about the only thing we learned to do. What arethey trying to make us do?" Aerang said all government programsare fundamentally flawed because none can guarantee thelivelihood of people like her once they leave the brothels.

South Korea had one of the region's most vibrant sexindustries, belying its image as a strait-laced, conservativeConfucian society.

Contrary to widely held beliefs, very few of the women inthe business are coerced, abused or held against their will,another woman at the rally said.

"We get our holidays, we get sick days, just like everyother worker," said Kang Mi-ju, 30.

Prostitution has been illegal since 1948 but had beenwidely tolerated until the new law, which has been rigorouslyenforced.

Because the law mainly targets brothels, much of thebusiness has moved to other seemingly harmless establishments,such as barber shops, massage parlors and special deliverycoffee shops, brothel owners and critics of the law said.

"This law flies in the face of the rights of women," saidLee Sung-sook, a sex historian and college lecturer whoattended the rally. "I believe prostitution should bede-criminalised, not just limited to brothels," Lee toldreporters.