South Korean prostitutes protest police crackdown.
South Korean prostitutes protest police crackdown. Reuters

South Korea, a wealthy, powerful Asian super-state, technology hub and stalwart U.S. ally, has a deep, dark secret. Prostitution and the sex trade flourish in South Korea just under the country’s shiny surface.

Despite its illegality, prostitution and the sex trade is so huge that the government once admitted it accounts for as much as 4 percent of South Korea’s annual gross domestic product -- about the size of the fishing and agriculture industries combined.

Indeed, paid sex is available all over South Korea -- in coffee shops, shopping malls, the barber shop, hotels, motels, as well as the so-called juicy bars, frequented by American soldiers, and the red-light districts, which operate openly. Internet chat rooms and cell phones have opened up whole new streams of business for ambitious prostitutes and pimps.

The South Korean government’s Ministry for Gender Equality estimates that about 500,000 women work in the national sex industry, though, according to the Korean Feminist Association, the actual number may exceed 1 million. If that estimate is closer to the truth, it would mean that 1 out of every 25 women in the country is selling her body for sex -- despite the passage of tough anti-sex-trafficking legislation in recent years. (For women between the ages of 15 and 29, up to one-fifth have worked in the sex industry at one time or another, according to estimates.)

Indeed, the sex industry (in the face of laws criminalizing and stigmatizing it) is so open that prostitutes periodically stage public protests to express their anger over anti-prostitution laws. Bizarrely, like Tibetan monks protesting China’s brutal rule of their homeland, some Korean prostitutes even set themselves on fire to promote their cause.

Naturally, demand is high.

According to the government-run Korean Institute of Criminology, one-fifth of men in their 20s buy sex at least four times a month, creating an endless customer base for prostitutes.

Even worse, child and teen prostitution are also prevalent in South Korea.

Al-Jazeera reported that some 200,000 South Korean youths run away from home annually, with many of them descending into the sex trade, according to a report by Seoul’s municipal government. A separate survey suggested that half of female runaways become prostitutes.

All these statistics fly in the face of South Korea’s stellar image as a society that consistently produces brilliant, hard-working, motivated students and technocrats. However, it is precisely that academic pressure (along with other family issues) that drives many of these teens onto the streets.

"No one ever told me it was wrong to prostitute myself, including my schoolteachers,” a runaway named Yu-ja told Al-Jazeera.

“I wish someone had told me. Girls should be taught that from an early age in class here in South Korea, but they aren't."

Not only is South Korea home to child and teen prostitution, but South Korean men are also driving such illicit trade in foreign countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology, based on surveys conducted in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.

“If the testimony from many underage prostitutes, police officers and human rights groups is true, South Koreans are the biggest customers of the child sex industry in the region,” their report stated, reported the Korea Times newspaper.

“That’s very shameful for [South Korea].”

Yun Hee-jun, a Seoul-based anti-sex trafficker, told the Times: “On online community websites, you can easily find information about prices for sex with minors and the best places to go. If you visit any brothel in Vietnam or Cambodia, you can see … fliers written in Korean.”

The U.S. State Department, in the 2008 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” also blamed South Korean tourists for significantly driving the demand for underage sex in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.

The document indicated that large numbers of South Korean girls and women have been trafficked to Japan, the U.S. and as far away as Western Europe.

On the flip side, many women from poorer Asian countries, particularly the Philippines, flock to South Korea to work as prostitutes and "bar girls" (lured by the promises of legitimate work as waitresses or entertainers).

For the record, the U.S. government prohibits American servicemen from patronizing bars and other establishments in South Korea served by prostitutes.

Blogger Park Je-Sun wrote on Threewisemonkeys that in Seoul, South Korea’s largest city, prostitution is widespread and peculiarly civilized -- and a central component of the local business culture.

“The majority of top-end -- that is, rich -- businessmen in Seoul are more familiar with sex-industry culture than in a number of other countries,” Park wrote.

“Sex and power are closely linked in this city.”

As an illustration of how widespread prostitution is in South Korea, consider that in January 2012 police raided a nine-story brothel in the upscale Gangnam neighborhood in Seoul and discovered no less than 100 prostitutes working there, ostensibly as "hostesses," who charged at least $300 for sex. This complex generated more than $200,000 every day, according to local media reports.

“It’s not uncommon for a hostess bar and a hotel to be located in the same building,” a policeman told the Korea Times.

In late 2006, the South Korean government took an unusual step to stamp out prostitution -- the Ministry for Gender Equality offered a cash incentive to companies whose male employees refrained from buying sex at office parties and business trips, an ingrained part of Korean corporate culture.

The prevalence of prostitution in contemporary South Korea provides an ironic counterpoint to the passionate political activism of elderly Korean women who relentlessly criticize Japan for forcing them into servitude as prostitutes and "comfort women" during Tokyo’s brutal occupation of their country.

Prostitution has a long history in South Korea, going back to the medieval period, when the “kisaeng,” female entertainers, were officially sanctioned by the ruling elite to perform all kinds of services, including sex.

Prostitution as a way of life continued in one form or another over the centuries, including during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

After World War II and the Korean War, the United States changed the face of prostitution.

Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for most of the 1960s and 1970s, actually encouraged the sex trade in order to generate much-needed revenue, particularly at the expense of the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the country.

“Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military,” Kim Ae-ran, a former South Korean prostitute forced to work at an American military base, told the International Herald Tribune.

“They urged us to sell as much as possible to the G.I.’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots.'”

Another ex-prostitute lamented: “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. Looking back, I think my body was not mine but the [South Korean] government’s and the U.S. military’s.”

In the 21st century, another source of prostitution comes from South Korea’s impoverished northern neighbor, North Korea.

Female defectors from North Korea – who typically reach South Korea after an arduous journey through a third country -- also sometimes descend into prostitution to survive.

Reportedly, many female North Korean defectors are forced into prostitution, not only to pay the exorbitant fees charged by people-smugglers, but to earn a living in South Korea -- sometimes this scenario leads to tragic consequences.

In March 2013, South Korean media reported on the case of a North Korean woman who was murdered while toiling as a sex worker in the city of Hwaseong, southwest of Seoul.

The killer, who turned himself in to police, confessed that he strangled the woman to death in a fit of anger when she refused to perform a “perverted” sex act. Compounding this tragedy of a desperate woman who fled repression and starvation in North Korea, it later emerged that her killer had no fewer than 16 previous convictions on his lengthy criminal record.

Now, in 2013, Korean courts are reportedly considering the constitutionality of the 2004 Special Law on Prostitution, which increased the penalties for both prostitution and pimping.

“It will be of great interest to see how the Special Law plays out in the courts and in the media,” wrote the blog,

“It’s a $13 billion a year reality … and it’s not going anywhere.”