By Na Jeong-ju
Among foreigners visiting Southeast Asia, South Koreans are the majority group driving demand for child prostitution across the region, according to the state-run Korean Institute of Criminology.
The institute published a report on the involvement of South Koreans in the sex trade throughout Southeast Asia on Tuesday based on year-long on-site surveys conducted in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.
The report said there are no statistics showing how many South Koreans annually buy sex from minors in each country. However, many police officers and civic activists the institute's researchers met cited South Koreans as the "No. 1 source of demand for child sex trafficking," the institute said.
"If the testimony from many underage prostitutes, police officers and human rights groups is true, South Koreans are the biggest customers of the child sex industry in the region. That's very shameful for the country."
The problem is compounded by the fact that most Koreans who buy sex from minors in Southeast Asia don't feel guilty about their behavior.
Park Sun-young, a researcher from the institute, said the sex trade involving Koreans has become a social concern in many countries, but neither the tourists nor the Korean authorities take the problem very seriously.
"We need to take fundamental measures regarding this," Park said.
A survey conducted by the institute on 900 Korean tourists last year showed 77.7 percent were unaware that sex tourism in Southeast Asia was illegal. About 78 percent of respondents said Korean tourists won't be punished by the government even if they were caught buying sex.
Experts say Koreans are buying or selling sex overseas in more diverse, bolder and sophisticated ways, but the government has been negligent in taking action against these.
The problem has been recognized by many countries.
A 2008 report from the U.S. Department of State, "Trafficking in Persons Report," described South Korea as a significant source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It also noted that a growing number of South Korean women and girls are traded within the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong and even Western Europe.
Many tourism agencies arrange sex tours to Asian countries, but they have rarely been cracked down on.
"On online community websites, you can easily find information about prices for sex with minors and the best places to go," said Yun Hee-jun, head of a Seoul-based group campaigning against sex trafficking. "If you visit any brothel in Vietnam or Cambodia, you can see fliers written in Korean."