Human trafficking in South Korea

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The Republic of Korea is primarily a source for the trafficking of women and girls within the country and to the United States (often through Canada and Mexico), Japan, Hong Kong, Guam, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Western Europe for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian countries are recruited to work in South Korea, and a significant number of these women are trafficked for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. An increasing challenge for the ROK is the number of women from less developed Asian countries who are recruited for marriage to Korean men through international marriage brokers; a significant number are misled about living conditions, financial status, and expectations of their Korean husbands. Some, upon arrival in South Korea, are subjected to conditions of sexual exploitation, debt bondage, and involuntary servitude. Some employers continued to withhold the passports of foreign workers, a practice that can be used as a means to coerce forced labor. South Korean men continue to be a significant source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.[1]

The Government of the Republic of Korea fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Over the last year, the government continued law enforcement efforts against sex trafficking, and signed MOUs for the Employment Placement System (EPS) with five additional countries and conducted numerous anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. The Korean National Police Agency cooperated with foreign law enforcement agencies to crack down on human smuggling networks that have been known to traffic women for sexual exploitation. However, these commendable efforts with respect for sex trafficking have not been matched by investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of labor trafficking occurring within South Korea’s large foreign labor force. Efforts to reduce demand for child sex tourism, in light of the scale of the problem, would be enhanced by law enforcement efforts to investigate Korean nationals who sexually exploit children abroad.[1]

U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed the country in "Tier 1" in 2017.[2]

Sex trafficking[edit]

Despite (or because of) the illegality of prostitution in the country, sex trafficking is prevalent, encompassing the forced prostitution of more than a million South Korean women in red-light districts like Yong Ju Gol and other areas, not including women from other countries who have been trafficked into South Korea for the purpose of forced prostitution. Economic materialism in the country, which is visible in the sizable South Korean fashion and cosmetic industries, contributes to domestic human trafficking because many young women become burdened by significant debt, victimized by loan sharks, and overwhelmed with multiple credit cards to pay off. The women who find themselves in this situation are often targeted by traffickers who entice the women with the possibility of paying off their debt through prostitution, when, in actuality, the traffickers ensure that the women's debt never gets paid off. Sex trafficking victims in South Korea are often sold in kissing rooms, massage parlours, and karaoke bars.[3] The majority of women enter sex work through job advertisements in newspaper, magazines, or the internet. Advertisements look like legitimate jobs, but women are required to engage in sex service once they are hired. Some women voluntarily enter for survival. Regardless of how they enter sex work, brothels abuse them economically, physically, and mentally. Procurers use debt bondage and lure women in with advance payments. They write employment contracts so that it is virtually impossible to pay back the debt.[4] Contracts involve heavy penalties for failing to generate daily profits for owners. They eventually become stuck in increasing debt, and cannot get away from procurers.


The R.O.K. government sustained progress in anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts over the last year. The R.O.K. prohibits trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation, including debt bondage, through its 2004 “Act on the Punishment of Intermediating in the Sex Trade and Associated Acts,” which prescribes up to 10 years’ imprisonment— penalties that are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other grave crimes, such as rape. Trafficking for forced labor is criminalized under the Labor Standards Act, which prescribes penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment—also sufficiently stringent. Some NGOs believe the 2004 laws against sex trafficking are not being enforced to their fullest potential. In 2007, R.O.K. authorities conducted 149 trafficking investigations and convicted 52 traffickers, all of whom were sex traffickers. The domestic crackdown on prostitution may have decreased the demand for commercial sexual exploitation in Korea, but it has caused an increase in the number of Korean women and girls moving abroad for commercial sexual exploitation. In 2007, the National Assembly passed the Marriage Brokerage Act, which regulates both domestic and international marriage brokers and proscribes penalties for dishonest brokers, including sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment or fines. The laws to protect “foreign brides” in Korea and punish fraudulent marriage brokers need to be strengthened in order to prevent some from being trafficked. During the reporting period, the government worked with the international community on investigations related to trafficking. There were no reported prosecutions or convictions of labor trafficking offenses.[1]


The Government of the Republic of Korea furthered efforts to protect victims of sex trafficking over the last year. The R.O.K. government spent $19 million in support of a network of 53 shelters and group homes for foreigners, providing victims with a variety of services, including psychological and medical aid, counseling, and occupational training. Counseling centers that are subsidized by the central government provide medical and legal aid to trafficking victims. NGOs report that there is only one counseling center and two shelters in the country dedicated to foreign victims of sex trafficking. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) is currently training 100 interpreters to help foreigners take advantage of services already provided by the South Korean government. Most other facilities that support foreigners are geared towards helping victims of marriage trafficking rather than victims of trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Most of the shelters are run by NGOs that the government funds fully or in part. This year, provincial police in cooperation with local governments will take over daily operation of the 24-hour hotline for South Korean and foreign trafficking victims that refers victims to government or NGO-run shelters and counseling centers. The government encourages sex trafficking victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. South Korean law protects foreign women being investigated as a victim of prostitution from deportation until the case is prosecuted or resolved, primarily through the issuance of G-1 visas or orders of suspension of the victim’s departure. G-1 visa holders are able to apply for jobs in Korea, but are not granted permanent residency. The R.O.K. government does not penalize victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being trafficked. The government continued the full implementation of EPS, which is a system of recruiting foreign workers through government-to-government agreements that eliminate the role of private labor agencies and recruiters, many of which had been found to employ highly exploitative practices—including practices that facilitated debt bondage and forced labor. During the reporting period, the R.O.K. government signed MOUs with China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and Kyrgyzstan, bringing the total number of MOUs to 14. These MOUs with governments of labor source countries contained provisions guaranteeing basic rights of workers. In July 2007, the government opened a third Migrant Worker Center to support the needs of foreign contract laborers in the country. The EPS appears to be curbing incidents of extreme exploitation and forced labor, through better monitoring, and the government’s encouraging of foreign workers to file complaints—civil and criminal—against their employers.[1]


The R.O.K. government acknowledges that trafficking is a problem and continued anti-trafficking prevention efforts through awareness raising campaigns. The Ministry of Justice runs 29 “John schools,” set up to educate male “clients” of prostitution, presented one-day seminars—in lieu of criminal punishment—to 15,124 first-time offenders who were arrested by R.O.K. police in 2007. The courses aim to correct attendees’ distorted views of prostitution and instill recognition of it as a serious crime. The MOGEF continued a public awareness campaign targeting the demand for commercial sex amongst adult males, juveniles, and university students, which included putting up billboard advertisements at train stations and airports. A growing number of R.O.K. men continue to travel to the P.R.C., the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia for child sex tourism. The R.O.K. government educated advertisement agencies, guides, and foreign travel agencies on the Korean government’s ability to punish Koreans for child sex tourism acts committed abroad, through a “Don’t Be an Ugly Korean” campaign launched by the Ministry of Justice in mid-2007. It also conducted campaigns to certify reputable Korean travel agencies and related businesses, and solicited the public’s ideas for the prevention of sex tourism. The R.O.K. has a law with extraterritorial application that allows for the prosecution of R.O.K. citizens who sexually exploit children while traveling abroad. The government has never prosecuted a Korean national for child sex tourism. The Republic of Korea has not ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Korea". Trafficking in Persons Report 2008. U.S. Department of State (June 4, 2008). This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  2. ^ "Trafficking in Persons Report 2017: Tier Placements". Retrieved 2017-12-01.
  3. ^ Dylan Goldby; Daniel Sanchez; Matthew Lamers (March 20, 2012). "'Girls Are Not For Sale'". Groove Korea. Retrieved April 13, 2013.