Michuhol District in Incheon announced its plan to provide KRW 22.6 million per year to each woman in the sex industry to support their return to society, sparking a huge controversy. Those against government support argue, “There are so many people in need, so why women prostitutes of all people?” while those for it respond, “Women in the sex industry are also people in need and cannot return to society without help”.
The controversy began on August 21, when Michuhol District in Incheon announced a bill to enact “Enforcement Regulations for the Ordinance on Aiding Self-Rehabilitation”. According to the enforcement regulations, if women in prostitution submit a letter of commitment to leave prostitution together with a self-rehabilitation plan, they will be entitled to KRW 1 million per month (approximately USD 875) for living expenses, KRW 7 million for housing support, and KRW 300,000 for job training expenses, totaling a maximum of KRW 22.6 million a year. An official from Michuhol District explained that it was a “measure to help women who are mired in prostitution because of pimps and debt return to society.”
This announcement has prompted some people to petition the government on the Cheong Wa Dae website. Dozens of petitions have been posted, ranging from “There are many people in need of government support. It seems right to give the money to the low-income class, recipients of basic livelihood security, and other people in need” to “Young people are not pushovers. Don’t make fool of those making an honest living by working part-time and looking for jobs.” Kang Seong-tae, known as the ‘god of study’, likewise objected to the idea on his YouTube channel: “What of the students who are not in prostitution, who are honest and work part-time to repay their debt and try to make a living? I feel bad telling these hardworking young people that ‘things will one day turn around’.”
This proposal to help the women in prostitution from Michuhol District is based on the premise that women enter prostitution unwillingly due to poverty. There are many historical records that state women engage in prostitution involuntarily. In Jottings to Break Up Idleness (Pahanjip) by Yi Illo, a writer from the Goryeo dynasty, there is a story about Shilla’s Kim Yu-shin being berated by his mother for befriending a courtesan named Cheon Gwan-nyeo. Although there is no definitive explanation about courtesans of the time, the leading argument is that they were often prisoners of war, which means that it was highly likely that they were used for involuntary prostitution.
This trend continues into the Joseon dynasty. In the book titled Annals of the Joseon Dynasty: Eighteenth Year in the Reign of King Sejong, King Sejong tells the governor of Hamgil Province, “Since the soldiers stationed in the northern border are far from their families and have to spend two winters and two summers there, it would be right to place courtesans there to service the soldiers.” Official courtesans were also understood to be beautiful women among slaves who belong to the state, strengthening the assertion that courtesans were forced into prostitution.
According to The History of Brothels, red light districts began to appear after 1876, when the Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity was signed and Japanese residential districts started to form in Busan. Japanese brothels were established, and the red light districts like the ones in Japan were formed in Korea. In 1916, during the Japanese colonial period, prostitution became legal and brothels were taxed. The licensed prostitution system (Japan’s prostitution management system) was eventually abolished, after Korea was liberated from the Japanese rule in 1947, and a law prohibiting prostitution was enacted in 1961. However, prostitution continued under the government’s tacit consent. During the Fifth Republic, the restriction on sports, media, and sex industry was lifted, giving way to a heyday of prostitution. And the government relaxed regulations ahead of the Seoul Olympic Games of 1988, leading to the rapid growth of commercial prostitution.
The sex industry began to shrink in 2004 with the enactment of the Special Act on the Prevention of Prostitution (those involved in prostitution shall be punished by imprisonment with labor for up to a year or fined up to KRW 3 million). But unofficial red light districts, such as Cheongnyang-ri 588, Yongjugol in Paju, Wanweol-dong in Busan, Jagalmadang in Daegu, and Yellow House in Incheon continue today.
In 2014, the government broke up the red light district of Texas-chon in Mia-ri. The person in charge of the crackdown at the time was Kim Gang-ja, the chief of Jongam Police Station, who earned the nickname the “Bao Zheng (Po Cheong Cheon) of Mia-ri”. She asserted, “Women who have been orphaned, who have not received proper education, or who were abandoned at an early age engage in prostitution for survival. When I met them on site, I found people who (should not have been subject to crackdowns but) should receive assistance for self-support. Reckless crackdowns only make prostitution thrive illegally.” She emphasized, “We need to harshly punish those who engage in prostitution for reasons other than survival. But those who do it to survive should receive assistance for self-support so they can return to society.”
The government has a duty to provide an environment and opportunity for all people to lead a life fit for humans. Of course, it is not right for the government to waste finances in worrying about the quality of life of every single person. And it cannot spend people’s hard-earned taxes on women who either voluntarily or involuntarily break the law. However, if the socially disadvantaged who are entitled to help are unable to receive help and are left abandoned due to the government’s negligence, the government should follow through on its obligations, however late.
Imagine a minor abandoned by her parents, neglected by society, and unable to make money in a normal way. What if she finds herself tied to a red light district and unable to escape? The government should see such women as socially disadvantaged and help them lead lives with the basic rights given to humans. In this sense, any woman in prostitution who wants to be a normal member of society but has been led astray by inevitable realities is also socially disadvantaged. In sum, we need wisdom and discernment to decide whether women in prostitution are entitled to receive the government’s assistance.