Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Unresolved Capitalism Issues Edition: Prostitution in Korea

Of course we're talking about South Korea. The Asia Times has an excellent new article out documenting the sex-trade there. You think we have problems with the sex trade here? Oui vey!

...As long as South Korea maintains the illegality of prostitution while turning a blind eye to one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, the industry itself escapes regulation and the sex workers do not enjoy even the most basic of human rights. In 2002 in a red-light district in Kunsan, 15 sex workers were killed when the building where they were confined caught fire. With the doors bolted from the outside and bars over the windows to prevent escape, the girls were unable to flee the flames, all suffering a horrific death. A Seoul court ruled in favor of the bereaved families, awarding them a total of $2 million in compensation from the brothel owner...

But even this very modest government initiative is encountering stiff and curious opposition from the association of brothel owners - the association's existence a testament to just how tacitly condoned the brothel business is. They are demanding that the government scrap its plans. Invoking their constitutional rights, the brothel owners are threatening to sue the government for infringing on their constitutionally guaranteed property rights if the government closes their brothels.

Through all of this, one fact is clear. The sex industry in South Korea is enormous and it is not about to go away. With most areas of South Korea's economy showing lackluster growth, the sex industry - the billions of dollars it generates and the hundreds of thousands it employs - cannot be legislated away. The still patriarchal Korean culture tolerates men seeking sex for pay. This may be contributing to family discord and divorce - South Korea's rate is almost 50 percent, making it second only to the United States. There are no signs, however, that the industry is slowing.

As long as the nation remains tacitly tolerant of the practice, the industry must be taken out of the shadows and into the open through legislation and regulation. The most abhorrent aspects of the industry - the abuse of children and trafficking and enslavement of women - must be abolished, while the revenues from the industry can be taxed for the benefit of the larger society.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. [emphasis added]

As a conservative I would point out the high price of such illicit activity both in the cost to human lives and in the discord in the marital rate. However I am concerned because the existence of the sex-trade, the "oldest profession in the world", is a conundrum of capitalism itself. If we are to take a view that the market should be the dictator of what commercial activities are to take place, then we would have to accept the defacto market in prostitution as a social reality.

However as a conservative I realize that while prositution is universal it is also not equally prevalent in all countries. On the other hand here in the United States the pornography industry is almost completely legal. I'm not sure what the distinction is between allowing people to be paid to have sex for cameras and not allowing them to pay other people to have sex. Yet at the same time I would rather not think about anyone being forced to have sex for financial reasons. It is indeed a cruel world we live in and so what is the solution?

I think as a realist and a pragmatist that certainly if there is already a huge sex-industry in place in Korea then the issue becomes one of both public health and the safety and protection of human lives. The realist solution is to create an HIV testing and certification regime and clean up the dirty parts of the business with whatever regulation and enforcement is necessary. However as a conservative this makes me wince and I would add that both social programs promoting the status of women, educating men on relationships (so hopefully they won't have to have to pay to have sex), and creating shades of legalization in exchange for making the process more discrete would have to done.

It's a thorny problem, that essentially boils down to an issue of all men wanting sex and some men being willing to exchange money to women who may be economically more disadvantaged in order for them to gain income. See this Independent article on coerced prostitution in refugee camp.

By Cahal Milmo
25 May 2004

Teenage rape victims fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being sexually exploited by the United Nations peace-keeping troops sent to the stop their suffering.

The Independent has found that mothers as young as 13 - the victims of multiple rape by militiamen - can only secure enough food to survive in the sprawling refugee camp by routinely sleeping with UN peace-keepers.

Testimony from girls and aid workers in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp in Bunia, in the north-east corner of Congo, claims that every night teenage girls crawl through a wire fence to an adjoining UN compound to sell their bodies to Moroccan and Uruguayan soldiers.

The trade, which according to one victim results in a banana or a cake to feed to her infant son, is taking place despite a pledge by the UN to adopt a "zero tolerance" attitude to cases of sexual misconduct by those representing the organisation.

Fundamentally I'm not worried about upper class men buying sex from well-paid escort services. The Heidi Fleiss's of the world are not what I'm worried about. I'm worried about women forced into prostitution to pay off loan-shark style debts, about runaways forced into prostitution to survive, for refugees forced into prostitution to feed their hungry babies. The streetwalkers and the poor whores of the world exploited by men in night-clubs etc. are my concern. Why? They're human beings and as human beings they deserve dignity and hope and choice as well as some sort of reasonable security.

I absolutely personally disapprove of prostitution. I would never want to see it normalized or glamourized in any way. I'd never be completely comfortable with such normalization. However there are degrees of regulation and enforcement and decriminalization. I think that we need a serious rethink about the issue of prostitution both for developing nations and for the United States. Nobody wants to think of their daughter or their sister being forced into prositution by either financial considerations or for reasons of coercion. Ultimately I don't think things like sex-worker unions are the best thing for society. However in the short term prostitutes getting exploited by brothel owners isn't what I want either.

I'll be thinking about this issue more in days to come, and trying to come up with solutions. This is the ugly side of market capitalism. People pay to have sex. Other people for whatever reason get coralled into doing this. We have an incentive as a society and civilization to confront this problem and attempt to wrestle with it, for the least of our citizens is deserving of our full consideration as human beings.


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