Constitutional Court in South Korea Uphold Anti-Sex Work Laws

Yesterday, the Constitutional Court in South Korea ruled 6 to 3 to reject a petition to overturn the ‘Anti-Sex Trade Laws’. The laws state that anyone found guilty of buying or selling sex will face up to one year in prison or be fined up to 3 million Won (approximately 2,300 EURO or 2,600 USD).

The court found that the laws punishing sex workers and their clients were constitutional, and that sex workers should be found other work, as Reuters reports.

“The anti-prostitution law aims to punish prostitution in order to uphold sound social customs and ethics of sex, and so therefore the clause is just,” the court said according to an article in the Korea Times. “If sex workers are not punished, the supply of prostitutes could grow,” continued the court.

Another judge stated that, “demand for sex trade is a major cause for expansion of the sex industry, so it is all the more important to restrain demand by punishing those who pay for sex.”

The ‘Anti-Sex Trade Laws’ were introduced in 2004 after a series of fires killed 24 brothel-based sex workers, according to an article on Open Democracy. The government sought to eradicate sex work with the law.

The law has been challenged several times. However, this was the first time it was challenged by a sex worker. District Court Judge OH Won Chan submitted the request on behalf of KIM Jeong Mi, a sex worker in Seoul. She argued that the laws violated her right to self-determination as guaranteed by the South Korean constitution.

In a press conference in front of the Constitutional Court in central Seoul, KANG Hyun-joon from the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers stated, “we cannot accept the ruling. Sex workers are also nationals of Korea. They need to receive respect for the work they do with lack of choice because they were unable to receive a proper education and did not inherit anything from their parents.”

While the laws were upheld, it is remarkable that three judges firmly opposed the criminalisation of sex workers. Justice CHO Yong-ho, who opposed the constitutionality of the laws entirely, stated, “the majority view insists that prostitution should not be protected by law because it harms human dignity. But nothing harms human dignity more than a threat to survival,” the New York Times reports. He continued, “if the state intervenes in an individual’s private sex life, it would result in forcing certain morals on people. Punishing women who voluntarily sell sex for a living is a human rights violation threatening their survival and another violence by the state,” according to the Korea Herald.

The two other dissenting judges argued that “the state should help rehabilitate prostitutes rather than punish them with a criminal charge.” These judges argued in favour of the ‘Nordic Model’, also known as the ‘Swedish Model’, which criminalises the clients of sex workers. For more information on the harmful effects of this model, read NSWP’s Swedish Model Advocacy Toolkit.

The ruling marks a stark contrast to Amnesty International’s recently adopted policy recommending the decriminalisation of sex work to protect and uphold the rights of sex workers. It also violates best practices as set out in the Sex Worker Implementation Tool.

Kang Hyun-joon, from the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers, stated that sex workers have struggled for their rights ever since the laws were adopted and that the court’s ruling “pushes the poor women to the brink of death.”

Kang and sex worker JANG Se-hee announced that Hanteo intends to bring this ruling to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The legal oppression of sex work is harmful for sex workers and a violation of their human rights. Criminalisation of sex workers and their clients creates barriers for sex workers to access police, social, and health services. For more information on the effects of criminalisation, please read NSWP’s briefing paper “Sex Work and the Law: Understanding Legal Frameworks and the Struggle for Sex Work Law Reforms”.