A group of prostitutes hold a rally in front of Times Square Mall in Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, Sunday, demanding the authorities stop their crackdown on brothels in the district. / Yonhap
By Kim Tae-jong
Prostitutes and pimps are joining forces to protest the government’s “indiscriminate” crackdown on brothels, claiming the move threatens their basic right to survive.
On Sunday, dozens of women mostly wearing white surgical masks and red caps held a rally in front of a luxury brand shop in Times Square, a mall run by Shinsegae Department Store, in Yeongdeungpo in Seoul at around 5 p.m.
They were protesting the shopping mall’s refusal to sell Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags worth 1.6 million won and 1.2 million won each to them as they tried to pay with tens of thousands of 10-won and 100-won coins they brought in suitcases.
They spread the coins on the floor of the lobby and held a sit-in protest before dispersing about three hours later at 8:15 p.m.
The incident is the latest in a series of rallies organized by sex workers from brothels in Yeongdeungpo.
They claim the posh shopping mall is one of the key reasons why they are being forced out of the region.
Matter of survival
They threaten they will step up their struggle against the authorities’ move to demolish their workplace.
“What can we do if the government drives us out of our job? This job is the last option for us, and there is no alternative,” 29-year-old Kim Eun-jung (alias) working in a brothel in Yeongdeungpo told The Korea Times.
“It’s a matter of survival for us.”
The move comes in response to the government’s crackdown on the red-light district in Yeongdeungpo last month.
Police cars now patrol the district and officers are dispatched to the district, which turns customers away.
Prostitutes and their pimps have held street protests, visiting the nearby police station and the National Assembly.
Last Wednesday, they also held a press conference at the Korea Press Center in central Seoul, asking for the abolishment or revision of the 2004 Act on the Prevention of the Sex Trade and Protection of its Victims, which reinforced penalties for prostitution.
However, prostitution has not been rooted out and major brothels are still in business with about 1,300 prostitutes working in red light districts in Seoul such as Miari, Yeongdeungpo, Cheongryangni and Cheonho-dong.
Prostitutes argue that the law fails to reflect the reality and will only worsen the situation.
“The special law fails to reflect the reality. It can’t root out prostitution, but rather pushes the sex trade further underground,” Kim said.
“As such, sex workers can be exploited. A lot of Korean prostitutes choose to go abroad to work, where their human rights can be easily violated and they have to work without proper protection.”
She also criticized the government’s efforts to help sex workers change their jobs.
“We also want to change our jobs. But the subsidy of 400,000 won a month and the rehabilitation programs proposed by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family are too unrealistic to reflect our situation,” Kim said.
Sex workers believe proper regulation is necessary instead of “meaningless” efforts to outlaw prostitution.
“We also know the big brothel districts in Seoul are an eyesore, which need to be removed, but we also need to survive,” said Kang Hyun-jin, director of the Hanteoh Women Workers Federation (HWWF), a nationwide group of prostitutes.
“The special law can’t root out prostitution, which I personally think is impossible,” Kang said, citing a survey result.
The HWWF recently commissioned a survey from the Hyundae Research Institute, and the outcome showed that half of the respondents said the special law on prostitution has had no substantial impact on the sex business, while 23.2 percent said it has pushed it further underground.
The survey was conducted on 1,000 adults.
Reflection of reality
“Our demand is that the special law should be amended to reflect the reality and the government should properly regulate prostitution so that it can take place in designated areas, which aren’t necessarily central areas of the city, and we think it can minimize the negative aspects of prostitution,” Kang said.
The Yeongdeungpo red light district faced a severe downturn even before the intensive crackdown due to the opening of the multi-complex shopping center, Times Square, in September, 2009.
This led to about 30 brothels shutting down ― only 50 are open currently.
Kang also alleged that the shopping center lobbied a politician and police to abolish the brothel district to make parking lots.
She argued that other major red light districts in Seoul are not experiencing a severe crackdown.
Prostitutes plan to send a petition to Cheong Wa Dae and the Prime Minister’s Office calling for the abolition of the law, as well as holding protests.
“If they call us nasty pimps who exploit sex workers, then the government is the biggest pimp who exploits all of us,” Kang said.
“In the past, officials from ward offices used to visit us to teach us English so that we could serve U.S. soldiers when there were big military drills taking place. They boosted the business to earn dollars, and now they try to abolish it all of sudden because they believe we are a rich country.”
성매매업자들 정부 단속에 항의
매춘부들과 매춘 알선업자들이 정부의 “무분별한” 집장촌 단속이 자신들의 기본 생존권을 위협한다며 항의하기 위해 공동 전선을 펴고 있다.
지난 일요일 오후 5시경 흰 마스크와 빨간 모자를 눌러 쓴 수 십 명의 여성들이 서울 영등포구에서 신세계 백화점이 운영하는 쇼핑몰인 타임즈 스퀘어의 한 명품매장 앞에서 시위를 벌였다.
이 여성들은 시가 100만원 정도의 루이뷔통과 구찌 핸드백을 여행 가방 가득 담아온 10원짜리와 100원짜리 동전으로 값을 치르려 하자 매장측이 거부했다며 항의했다. 그들은 동전을 로비 바닥에 뿌린 뒤 약 3 시간 동안 연좌농성을 하고 8시 15분이 되어서야 해산했다.
이 사건은 영등포구 집장촌 성매매 여성들이 벌인 최근 시위이다.
여성들은 호화 쇼핑몰 입점으로 성매매 단속이 강화돼 자신들이 지역에서 쫓겨나고 있다고 주장한다.
영등포구 사창가에서 일하는 김은정 (29, 가명) 씨는 “정부가 일자리를 빼앗으려고 하면 우리가 어쩌겠냐? 이 일은 우리의 마지막 선택이고 대안은 없다” 며 “이는 우리에겐 생존의 문제” 라고 말했다.
이 집단시위는 지난 달 정부가 벌인 대대적인 홍등가 단속에 대한 저항이다. 경찰차가 홍등가를 순찰하고 경찰관이 파견되자 손님이 줄어들었다.
매춘부와 매춘 알선업자들은 거리 시위를 벌였고 지난 수요일 서울 시내 중심가에 있는 프레스센터에서 성매매 처벌을 강화시킨 성매매방지및피해자보호에관한법률 개정안을 폐지하라는 내용의 기자회견을 열었다.
법률개정에도 불구하고 성매매는 근절되지 않았고 1,300여명의 매춘부들이 미아리, 영등포구, 청량리, 천호동 등 홍등가에서 여전히 일하고 있다.
매춘부들은 법이 현실을 반영하지 못했고 상황을 악화시키기만 할 것이라고 주장한다. 김씨는 “특별법은 현실을 반영하지 못하고 있다. 매춘을 근절하는 대신 성매매 음성화만 부추긴다” 고 말했다. “결과적으로 성매매 여성들이 착취될 뿐이다. 인권이 쉽게 침해되고 제대로 된 보호를 받지 못해 많은 한국 매춘부들이 해외로 나가고 있다.”
김씨는 성매매업자들이 전업할 수 있게 도와주려는 정부의 노력을 비판하기도 했다. “우리도 직업을 바꾸고 싶다. 하지만 여성부가 제안한 한 달에 40만원 보조금과 사회복귀프로그램은 우리상황을 반영하기엔 너무 비현실적” 이라고 말했다.