"The most fruitful outcome of this symposium was our visit to Miari district. We were able to compare the situation of prostitution in Korea and Hong Kong."
This was how participants from Hong Kong organizations dealing with prostitution issues looked back on the International Symposium aimed at establishing an international alliance against prostitution and human trafficking in the Asian region.
An ex-prostitute participant commented that "the Korean women looked very uncomfortable sitting dolled up in show windows," and showed surprise at how closed-up the red-light districts were.
An activist helping prostitutes in the Philippines said that "women involved in prostitution seriously jeopardize their own health." To help these women, "male volunteers are sent in to become friendly with the brothel owner or master, after which it becomes easier for counsellors to approach the women."
However, a Korean participant and ex-prostitute commented that such a method "just would not work here (in Korea)." According to her, "each prostitute is controlled by a gigolo, making it impossible for men, much less women, to approach her for anything besides sex."
"In Hong Kong, where prostitution is not illegal, prostitutes face extreme contempt and violence," said a Hong Kong participant. "There are many cases of gangsters extorting money from prostitutes, but what is more serious is that policemen act suspicious and refuse to help them."
In response, Korean participants said that "Korean gangsters do not just extort money from prostitutes but run the brothels and guard, imprison and prostitute women," thus exposing the reality in Korean society, where the connection between gangsters and prostitution is particularly tenacious.
"The biggest reason prostitutes cannot escape is because they know that the police gang up with the brothel owners and would be the first to catch them."
For the international organizations dedicated to countering prostitution and human trafficking, the third hearing of the "lawsuit against the state for compensation regarding the Gunsan red-light district fire" came as a huge shock.
"A prostitute in Gunsan testified that she had to offer her body as a bribe to the police chief."
Kim Hyunsun, representative of Saewoomtuh, a shelter for victims of prostitution, attended the hearing and revealed what she had heard, exposing to shocked foreign activists the dark connection between the police and whoremasters in Korea.
Policemen and gigolos treating one another like brothers, brothel owners keeping records of bribes regularly delivered to the police, and police chiefs being bribed with sex... "Then who protects the human rights of the prostitutes?" The symposium participants pointed out that women should use international networks to make the Korean government comply with the conventions of the UN and other human rights organizations.
"We were able to see the many facets of Korean society. But we felt that the Special Act on the Prevention of Prostitution being initiated by the Korean government does not help women." A participant working with a Japanese organization to prevent the prostitution of female migrant workers said that "prostitutes should not be regarded as criminals," and that "forcing them into institutions is a human rights violation." The revision of the Anti-Prostitution Act proposed by Korea Women's Development Institute basically applies the principle of 'punishing both parties' and recommends that prostitutes be institutionalized.
Saewoomtuh, which hosted the International Symposium, declared that "considering the reality of prostitution in Korea, we cannot distinguish between voluntary and involuntary prostitution." The organization stressed the need to change the attitude of regarding all prostitutes as criminals. It also opposed the age limit for protection set by the government, saying, "Women who were sexually exploited in their teens become prostitutes as adults. The government is saying the sexuality of a 19-year-old should be protected whereas a 20-year-old can be left to fend for herself."
Officials from the Ministry of Gender Equality, which is working on the revision of the Act, said that they would "consider deleting the clause forcing women to be institutionalized."
Participants of the Symposium issued a statement on October 11, demanding △thorough investigation of the fire at Gunsan red-light district and punishment of those responsible △shelters to protect prostitutes' human rights and actual measures to help them find alternative jobs △special support system to protect the human rights of migrant workers fallen victim to prostitution and human trafficking △government compliance with the International Convention on Prostitution and Human Trafficking △mandatory education programs for civil servants and those who buy sex.