South Korean police officers patrol a red-light district in Seoul. Pic: AP.

Constitutional Court to decide if it’s okay to pay for sex, writes David Slatter

Consider this conundrum: The sex trade is illegal, but are voluntary sexual relations that are then followed by money illegal? That’s the question facing South Korea’s Constitutional Court, and it’s one that highlights the grey areas that are still common in regards to the sex trade in both Korean law and Korean society.

The question has arisen from the case of a citizen named only as ‘Kim’ (41) who was recently charged with receiving payment for offering sexual services. What seems like a relatively simple case has prompted a wider debate and some soul searching for Korea’s judiciary. The case has been passed to Korea’s Constitutional Court, which must decide if the Special Anti-Sex Trafficking Act (2004) is constitutional in its current guise. The original trial will now be delayed until a ruling has been reached.

Judge Oh Won-Chon explains that the question facing the court is, “Should the relationship have occurred with mutual consent without the involvement of organized gangs or pimps, there are limitations as to whether the state should get involved.” He continued, “Sexual contact between adults, unless it involves coercion or extortion, should be left for the parties to decide in view of their right to self-determination.”

Judge Oh also said that the case will be a chance to explore the legal disparity that exists within the current Special Law on the Sex trade. As it stands the law caries a relatively heavy punishment for those selling sex, namely a 6 months to 1 year jail term or an almost $3,000 fine. However, the repercussions befalling the buyer of sex usually only amounts to a much smaller fine and the attendance of a ‘John School’ for training and lectures.

The Korea Times has testimony of a 24 years old sex worker who shines a light on this inequality,

“I cannot file a police report even when customers beat me up for fear of facing punishment of

my own….Men who buy sex get away with a few hours of lectures while we have to swallow

condoms when the police arrive on the scene. The special law on sex trade pushes us into corners.”

The case highlights Korea’s at times conflicting and fluctuating relationship with the sex trade. Korea has some of the toughest prostitution laws in Asia (excluding Islamic nations), but traditionally there has been very little enforcement, and High Streets in even the most modest towns are lined with massage parlors, coffee shops, hostess bars, barbers, and other loosely disguised locations for sexual procurement.

The Korean courts and government have occasionally been struck with the zeal to clean up the sex trade, such as 2004’s crackdown on some of the more conspicuous Red Light districts, but this urge seems to fade rather quickly. With the trade currently bringing in roughly 14 trillion won (US$13.3 million,

approx. 1.6% of the nation’s GDP), it is easy to get the feeling everyone would be more comfortable if the matter just remained in limbo, but with the Constitutional Court set rule within six months it may not stay that way for much longer.