WASHINGTON, September 27, 2011— A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the story of You Mi Kim, a woman from South Korea forced into prostitution in the United States to pay off her $40,000 credit card debt. To pay off her heavy debt, she worked in a massage parlor that was actually a brothel, serving dozens of men in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Since the Chronicle broke the story, US authorities have focused on prostitution at local massage parlors, but have failed to address the root causes behind the proliferation of sex trafficking of South Korean women.
South Korea is one of the major countries where sex trafficking victims in the U.S. originate. According to the US Attorney General in 2006, South Koreans accounted the highest population (24%) of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. followed by Thailand (11.7%), and Peru (10%). However, the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report categorized South Korea as a Tier 1 country in the same year.
American authorities are well aware of the problem of South Korean women trafficked to the U.S. and other developed countries. The Trafficking in Persons report in 2011 noted the problem and recommended South Korea to implement a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.
Despite the anti-human trafficking efforts in both South Korea and the U.S., sex trafficking of South Korean women continues to proliferate. Earlier this month, South Korean news reported that more than 200 South Korean women were trafficked to work in the sex trade to the U.S. over the past five years.
After the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, the South Korean government implemented an economic stimulus program to boost domestic economy. The program allowed many South Koreans to borrow and spend regardless of their credit scores. This allows anyone to sign up for a credit card and spend without limits.
The resulting South Korean debt collection laws and the aforementioned stimulus plan both contribute to South Korean women being forced into sex trade around the world.
Unlike most other countries, credit card users in South Korea have no option to pay off their debt over months or even years. Instead, they must pay off the full balance in 30 days, which makes it easy for borrowers “paying 25% plus annual interest rates to fall behind.”
It is not uncommon for lenders to take possession or even repossess borrowers homes to pay their debts.
When a poor woman like You Mi Kim, becomes delinquent, she often turns to private lenders for quick cash. Many of those private lenders are connected to organized crime involved in human trafficking and prostitution, making a naïve college woman like You Mi Kim vulnerable to sex slavery.
Though the Korean debt collection law prohibits collection of debt using threats or violence, it is rarely enforced. In 2009, a young college woman was forced into prostitution after she failed to pay back $2,500 to a loan shark. When she couldn’t afford to pay her college tuition, she turned to the loan shark for the money to continue with her education.
When her father later found out, he attempted to cancel the loan. Then, when he failed, he killed himself and his daughter.
Even when the law is enforced, legislative loopholes still make young women vulnerable. In March 2011, police arrested a woman who trafficked over 70 South Korean females for prostitution in Tokyo, Japan. Traffickers recruit the women, all heavily indebted, through loan sharks.
In order to pay off the debts, traffickers offer victims jobs at massage parlors in Japan. Upon arrival in Tokyo, however, the victims were locked up and forced into prostitution under debt-bondage while the trafficker profited approximately $304,000 a month.
Dr. Timothy Lim of California State University also blames South Korean sex trafficking on discrimination against women in the South Korean labor market. Women rarely have opportunities to make “high wages to pay off an accumulated debt.”
International authorities agree with Dr. Lim; the OECD stated that the wage gap between men and women in South Korea was more than 30%, the largest wage difference between genders among the member countries in 2010. What’s more, women are more likely to work in low paid positions and have fewer chances of promotion than men.
In South Korea, many women attend college to meet an eligible husband, rather than pursue their own dreams. Sex work is “one of the few viable alternatives for earning higher wages” for many, according to Dr. Lim.
While only about 5% of the Korean population use private lenders or loan sharks, they account for approximately 85% of the South Koreans who are in serious debt, and the majority of South Korean women trafficked around the world belong to this group.
If anti-human trafficking is an international priority, shouldn’t authorities feel the urgency to address the root causes that send so many young South Korean women into the trade?
Youngbee Dale is a freelance writer, researcher, and human rights advocate. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ybdale.
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