As is the case in much of Asia, prostitution is technically illegal in South Korea, but is still common and often not targeted by law enforcement. In response to a government crackdown on the prostitution, South Korean prostitutes and pimps painted their faces white and marched in the streets of Seoul in favor of legalizing prostitution or at least stopping the government’s crackdown on prostitution.
While the protests may seem to have a modicum of normality, South Koreans know how to protest in style. Unsurprisingly, the prostitutes and their pimps are not different in this regard; at least 20 of the protesters attempted to set themselves on fire in attempts to call attention to the injustices of the government’s crackdown on the sex industry within South Korea.
The South Korean government’s crackdown is focused on the johns more than the prostitutes; there are now police cars stationed near the brothels and love motels in an attempt to dissuade the men from frequenting the brothels. Many of the sex workers believe that a nearby department store was responsible for the change in police policy regarding the brothel. In a direct response to the department store’s alleged actions, a different group of prostitutes in the protest also tried to buy items in department stores using only coins instead of paper money. Instead of leaving the department stores when the sales clerks refused to sell them the items, the prostitutes sat down on the middle of the floor in the department stores in protest.
In the past in South Korea, the middle-aged women (ajumas) and wives have staged protests regarding the South Korean’s government lack of enforcement on the South Korean sex industry. I witnessed one protest ten years ago in which a few hundred ajumas walked down the street arm-in-arm brandishing parasols and protesting the South Korean love motels, which have garages that shield the cars of the men inside from their wives.
South Korea’s red light districts are spread throughout every city in Korea and are often near apartment buildings and other well-populated areas. Often there are business cards of prostitutes and sex workers strewn about the roads of South Korea. In smaller towns, there are even delivery coffee girls who make “special” deliveries to their clients after visiting them on a scooter. Most of the time, these transgressions are ignored by the Korean government, but as stated above, prostitution and sex work is currently illegal in South Korea.