Introducing: Sex Worker Network SON, South Korea

In August 2016 Sex Worker Network SON announced their new sex worker led network in South Korea. In a message introducing the new group a spokesperson said:

We are starting a movement focused on our experiences, our voices, and our needs. What we do not need is pity or saving. We wish you will see us as we are and stand with us.”

The network’s initial activities include offering legal support for members after police entrapment or crackdowns, and meeting together to share their experiences and support each other.

Sex worker groups and networks in the region welcomed the new group. APNSW Regional Coordinator Kay Thi Win said:

It is great to hear of a new sex worker led network in South Korea. We wish you strength and courage, and look forward to working together in future.”

And APNSW Chair Jules Kim said:

“As a Korean Australian sex worker it makes me incredibly proud to stand in solidarity with sex worker led network SON. Given the hostile policies in South Korea and the active persecution of sex workers by the South Korean Government, this is a brave and necessary network of grass roots sex worker activists standing for the human rights for sex workers and our right to dignity and self determination.

According to SON, South Korea is a “harsh environment” for sex workers.

After years of tolerating sex work in specific red-light areas, the South Korean government passed special laws targeting sex work in 2004. The laws were supposedly a response to dangerous conditions in some parts of the sex industry. However, the government’s goal was eradicating the sex industry, not improving conditions of work.

Selling sex, paying for sex, and organising or advertising sex work all became criminal offences under the 2004 laws. The laws define sex work as trafficking, and criminalise both clients and sex workers.

The law on advertising means a sex worker who advertises their own services commits an offence equal to advertising the services of somebody else. The maximum sentence is 3 years in jail, or a fine of over $US 25,000 – ten times as much as the fine for engaging in sex work itself.

One of SON’s own members was faced with the prospect of this charge after a police entrapment operation. According to SON this illustrates how false is the claim that ‘South Korean laws protect sex workers and punish those who facilitate sex work more strongly.’ Even the shorter sentence and smaller fine is like a sword “hanging over our head.”

These fines also make sex workers working together for safety more dangerous or impossible. The law considers working together to be the same as having formed a ‘criminal organisation’ and sex workers can face aggravated punishments.

Tens of thousands of sex workers have been arrested in the years since the laws were passed. Violent raids and closures of sex work venues continue to be routine, along with police posing as clients for the purpose of entrapment. In one horrific case in 2014, a sex worker died after jumping out of a motel room to escape from a police officer posing as a client.

The repressive climate means sex workers often worry more about police raids than they do about screening out violent or abusive clients. Sex workers’ ability to negotiate condoms use is decreased, and seeking medical attention can be close to impossible. Laws that are supposed to protect sex workers, in practice increase their exposure to violence and STIs, including HIV.

Several unsuccessful legal challenges have been made against the 2004 laws. And thousands of sex workers and allies have joined public protests over the years. However, on 31st March 2016 the Supreme Court of Korea upheld the constitutionality of the special laws targeting sex work. This “made us realize that we must stand together,” said SON.

The new network is small and although they have plans to grow, they are realistic about what can be achieved in the short term:

What we can do right now is write … find people who will stand in solidarity … and have our members take care of each other. Right now we are fully aware that the Sex Worker Network Son cannot radically change the structure of the sex industry of Korea. We know from experience that such changes in the world do not happen so quickly.”

In their 23 September 2016 message, SON recognize that the rights and struggles of sex workers in South Korea overlap with those of women and LGBTQIA+ people. They write that double standards, stigma and taboos around sex threaten the health of all these communities:

The Sex Worker Network Son will continue the struggle for our health rights as sex workers, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

SON also acknowledge the work of the many sex workers, allies and activists who came before them:

We would like to express gratitude and respect for those who stood against the oppression of sex workers before we started sex work, before the term sex work existed … We thank you for creating a movement and a legacy which we will continue.”

In October 2016, Sex Worker Network SON also contributed a strong response to UN Women’s consultation, despite significant language barriers and the costs of translation to English. It concluded:

We must be allowed to become agents of our own liberation and fight for our rights.”

Key dates:

23rd September – the day special laws targeting sex work were passed (2004)
29th June – South Korean Sex Worker Day (since 2005)

Look out for:

Forthcoming film “Grace Period” which documents the sex worker protests of recent years preceding the establishment of SON.