Child prostitution in the Republic of Korea: ‘Here I am’

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By Jasmin Tarakei (Legal Researcher, Asia)

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, opened with spectacular performances, with both North and South Korea marching under one unified flag. As a spectator, one was fascinated by the sheer proficiency with which drones and lighting were used to create such wonderful effects.

South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. But this rapid technological advancement has also brought with it some big challenges. The younger generations have been growing up surrounded by it, yet with little awareness of its potential dangers.

The government has been trying to adjust to this new age by, for example in limiting the time that youths spend in ‘PC Rooms’ gaming, as the country has witnessed a stark rise in gaming addictions and students not being able to concentrate in school. An area that has seen far less attention, however, and yet has more potentially damaging effects, is the way in which technology is being used to facilitate child prostitution.

Reports from NGOs like ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) have already given us a glimpse into the prevalence of child prostitution in South Korea in general. According to their 2012 Country Report on South Korea and studies conducted within the South Korean Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family: 33.4% of over 2000 female secondary school students questioned in Busan (a city on the South-East coast) said they had received offers for prostitution online and 20% among them had engaged in the sex trade. Young people who experience economic difficulties in their families or strained relations with family-members are particularly at risk. In recent years, more teens are running away from home and are left particularly vulnerable to such abuse.

Cybertip Canada Child Abuse website report has also identified that South Korea is in the ‘Top 5’ countries hosting websites with child abuse images.

Faced with such issues, the Korean government has tried to raise awareness to a certain degree, but the wide prevalence of prostitution in general, even though it is illegal, as well as the trends in Korean sexual tourism across South-East Asia do not paint a positive picture.

Furthermore, a loophole which these individuals use in order to make contact with these vulnerable children seems to be through online chatting apps. Some recent research undertaken by ‘Dotface’, under their ‘Here I Am’ project, suggests that opening accounts on Korean online chat-rooms and dating apps requires little effort, making it a comfortable way to establish sexual relations between users. Although largely unproblematic amongst consenting adult users, when minors begin to access these sites, the legal boundaries become blurred. Undercover reporters from ‘Dotface’ posed as 14-year-old teenagers on these chatting and dating apps, and were instantly inundated with messages from adult males offering money in exchange for meeting up.

Although the Korean government has recognised that children are susceptible to grooming, the frameworks and legal protections to protect children and teenagers is in dire need of reform. Struggling children need greater support to improve any mental health issues they may have, as well as support networks to guide them through family and/or economic difficulties. They must be provided the emotional support they require as a preventative measure. Furthermore, South Korea must reform its legislative frameworks to take into account the realities of child prostitution, and the crippling effect this is having on the lives of children, the stigma they carry forward through life, as well as reinforcing patriarchal societal attitudes. 

While recognising that the Korean government has formulated several plans of action in recent years, the accessibility to child pornography and prostitution hints at the insufficient enforcement of these plans and frameworks. 

We therefore urge the current legislation to remedy the existing loopholes and take all necessary measures to adopt new, and adapt existing, policies and educate children as well as their parents and the general public about child prostitution, the exploitation of children on the internet and how to recognise vulnerable persons, and protect them from such exploitation.

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