Speech by Hon. Lee Hye-hoon,
Former Member of the Supreme Council of the Saenuri (New
Frontier) Party and Former Member of National Assembly, Republic of Korea
at the 2nd ICAPP Workshop on Human Trafficking
(Phnom Penh, Aptil 29, 2015)
Today, I want to share with you the debate which is currently under way in Korea on a subject which may have some bearing on how we deal with human trafficking.
The debate is on whether the country's anti-prostitution law is constitutional. In Korea, both buying and selling sex are offenses punishable by up to a year in prison or a maximum fine of 3 million won, which is roughly 2,700 in U.S. dollars, by the anti-prostitution law which was enacted in 2004 to protect human rights. As you may know in some countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, prostitution is legal as long as it is for one's livelihood.
The opponents of the anti-prostitution law have called for the repeal of the law, on the ground that it is unconstitutional, and submitted the petition to the Constitutional Court which began public hearings on the case one week ago. This reignited a public debate over the issue of prostitution in the male-dominated society.
The opponents say that sexual acts between adults, made without exploitation or coercion, should be left to individuals' sexual self-determination, and the state should not intervene in such acts. They argue the law goes against the "principle of minimal intervention by the government" as it punishes the voluntary choice by female adults. Some even argue that both buying and selling sex should be allowed, saying "everyone should have equal opportunities for sex, including even single fathers or people with disabilities."
They also claim that there is little evidence that punishing sex workers is effective in curbing the sex trade. According to government data, the number of female sex workers increased by 3.8 percent from 2010 to 2013, in spite of the enactment of the law.
They say that police crackdowns on the industry only worsened the situation of sex workers, many of whom were undereducated and could not find anything else to do for living. Without a proper social system in which they can feed and educate themselves, the crackdowns would fail to eradicate prostitution. The current system pushes sex workers to places where their rights are largely abused by other perpetrators. So they argue that punishing voluntary prostitution, especially when the sex worker has no other means of income, is a violation of fundamental human rights.
According to a study last year by the Gender Equality Ministry, almost 80 percent of female sex workers were in their 20s and 30s. Also, about 90 percent of the surveyed women grew up in broken homes, while about 15 percent suffered from poverty and domestic abuse before turning to prostitution. Sixty percent of them began working as sex workers as teenagers after running away from home.
In contrast, proponents of the anti-prostitution law have expressed concerns that its abolishment could increase the number of prostitutes and create bigger social problems. The Gender Equality Ministry, which regularly conducts a joint crackdown against sex workers with police, says the current law is necessary to protect women’s rights, especially those of young girls.
They say that the proposal to scrap the anti-prostitution law is irresponsible and dangerous, and what we need is in fact stricter punishment of the sex trade to protect our young children.
The legalization of prostitution can be considered in a positive light only if Korea was a more just and fair society, they argue. They think there is still a lot of discrimination against women at workplaces and the glass ceiling is still pervasive. We need to examine what pushes the women into prostitution first before considering giving them freedom to choose sex work as their job.
The legalization of prostitution could lead many adolescents into the sex business. And it would cause more human trafficking and sex crimes, while sex workers' rights will still be violated in many other forms. Because it is a very fundamental human rights issue, prostitution cannot be justified only by people's right to have sex or make choices.
It is believed, however, that most South Koreans believe sex trafficking is wrong, and there is a common need to ban and punish prostitution.
The Constitutional Court is going to make a ruling on the constitutionality of the law by the end of this year after holding several rounds of hearings. And if the court rules to repeal the anti-prostitution law, many are worried that human trafficking may increase as the side-effect of the legalization of sex-trafficking, because human trafficking has correlation with prostitution.