Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Striking the Brothels’ Bottom Line

Posted in women's rights by allisonkilkenny on January 11, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

_248684_prostitutes300POIPET, Cambodia

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner.

My guide to that has been Sok Khorn, an amiable middle-aged woman who is a longtime brothel owner here in the wild Cambodian town of Poipet. I met her five years ago when she sold me a teenager, Srey Mom, for $203 and then blithely wrote me a receipt confirming that the girl was now my property. At another brothel nearby, I purchased another imprisoned teenager for $150.

Astonished that in the 21st century I had bought two human beings, I took them back to their villages and worked with a local aid group to help them start small businesses. I’ve remained close to them over the years, but the results were mixed.

The second girl did wonderfully, learning hairdressing and marrying a terrific man. But Srey Mom, it turned out, was addicted to methamphetamine and fled back to the brothel world to feed her craving.

I just returned again to Ms. Khorn’s brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust.

For years, Ms. Khorn had been grumbling to me about the brothel — the low margins, the seven-day schedule, difficult customers, grasping policemen and scorn from the community. There was also a personal toll, for her husband had sex with the girls, infuriating her, and the couple eventually divorced bitterly. Ms. Khorn was also troubled that her youngest daughter, now 13, was growing up surrounded by drunken, leering men.

Then in the last year, the brothel business became even more challenging amid rising pressure from aid groups, journalists and the United States State Department’s trafficking office. The office issued reports shaming Cambodian leaders and threatened sanctions if they did nothing.

Many of the brothels are owned by the police, which complicates matters, but eventually authorities in Cambodia were pressured enough that they ordered a partial crackdown.

“They didn’t tell me to close down exactly,” said another Poipet brothel owner whom I’ve also interviewed periodically. “But they said I should keep the front door closed.”

About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn’s brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it’s doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. “A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.

“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. … Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.”

Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage.

But brutality has its own drawbacks as a business model, particularly during a crackdown, pimps say. Brothels that imprison and torture girls have to pay for 24-hour guards, and they lose business because they can’t allow customers to take girls out to hotel rooms. Moreover, the Cambodian government has begun prosecuting the most abusive traffickers.

“One brothel owner here was actually arrested,” complained another owner in Poipet, indignantly. “After that, I was so scared, I closed the brothel for a while.”

To be sure, a new brothel district has opened up on the edge of Poipet — in the guise of “karaoke lounges” employing teenage girls. One of the Mama-sans there offered that while she didn’t have a young virgin girl in stock, she could get me one.

Virgin sales are the profit center for many brothels in Asia (partly because they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins several times over), and thus these sales are their economic vulnerability as well. If we want to undermine sex trafficking, the best way is to pressure governments like Cambodia’s to organize sting operations and arrest both buyers and sellers of virgin girls. Cambodia has shown it is willing to take at least some action, and that is one that would strike at the heart of the business model.

Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.

Ex-Prostitutes Say South Korea and U.S. Enabled Sex Trade Near Bases

Posted in military, women's rights by allisonkilkenny on January 8, 2009

New York Times

Bae at 29. Now 80, she lives on welfare and uses an oxygen machine. (Jean Chung for The International Herald Tribune)

Bae at 29. Now 80, she lives on welfare and uses an oxygen machine. (Jean Chung for The International Herald Tribune)

South Korea has railed for years against the Japanese government’s waffling over how much responsibility it bears for one of the ugliest chapters in its wartime history: the enslavement of women from Korea and elsewhere to work in brothels serving Japan’s imperial army.

Now, a group of former prostitutes in South Korea have accused some of their country’s former leaders of a different kind of abuse: encouraging them to have sex with the American soldiers who protected South Korea from North Korea. They also accuse past South Korean governments, and the United States military, of taking a direct hand in the sex trade from the 1960s through the 1980s, working together to build a testing and treatment system to ensure that prostitutes were disease-free for American troops.

While the women have made no claims that they were coerced into prostitution by South Korean or American officials during those years, they accuse successive Korean governments of hypocrisy in calling for reparations from Japan while refusing to take a hard look at South Korea’s own history.

“Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military,” one of the women, Kim Ae-ran, 58, said in a recent interview.

Scholars on the issue say that the South Korean government was motivated in part by fears that the American military would leave, and that it wanted to do whatever it could to prevent that.

But the women suggest that the government also viewed them as commodities to be used to shore up the country’s struggling economy in the decades after the Korean War. They say the government not only sponsored classes for them in basic English and etiquette — meant to help them sell themselves more effectively — but also sent bureaucrats to praise them for earning dollars when South Korea was desperate for foreign currency.

“They urged us to sell as much as possible to the G.I.’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots,’ ” Ms. Kim said.

The United States military, the scholars say, became involved in attempts to regulate the trade in so-called camp towns surrounding the bases because of worries about sexually transmitted diseases.

In one of the most incendiary claims, some women say that the American military police and South Korean officials regularly raided clubs from the 1960s through the 1980s looking for women who were thought to be spreading the diseases. They picked out the women using the number tags the women say the brothels forced them to wear so the soldiers could more easily identify their sex partners.

The Korean police would then detain the prostitutes who were thought to be ill, the women said, locking them up under guard in so-called monkey houses, where the windows had bars. There, the prostitutes were forced to take medications until they were well.

The women, who are seeking compensation and an apology, have compared themselves to the so-called comfort women who have won widespread public sympathy for being forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. Whether prostitutes by choice, need or coercion, the women say, they were all victims of government policies.

“If the question is, was there active government complicity, support of such camp town prostitution, yes, by both the Korean governments and the U.S. military,” said Katharine H. S. Moon, a scholar who wrote about the women in her 1997 book, “Sex Among Allies.”

The South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality, which handles women’s issues, declined to comment on the former prostitutes’ accusations. So did the American military command in Seoul, which responded with a general statement saying that the military “does not condone or support the illegal activities of human trafficking and prostitution.”

The New York Times interviewed eight women who worked in brothels near American bases, and it reviewed South Korean and American documents. The documents do provide some support for many of the women’s claims, though most are snapshots in time. The women maintain that the practices occurred over decades.

 

In some sense, the women’s allegations are not surprising. It has been clear for decades that South Korea and the United States military tolerated prostitution near bases, even though selling sex is illegal in South Korea. Bars and brothels have long lined the streets of the neighborhoods surrounding American bases in South Korea, as is the case in the areas around military bases around the world.

But the women say few of their fellow citizens know how deeply their government was involved in the trade in the camp towns.

The women received some support for their claims in 2006, from a former government official. In a television interview, the official, Kim Kee-joe, who was identified as having been a high-level liaison to the United States military, said, “Although we did not actively urge them to engage in prostitution, we, especially those from the county offices, did often tell them that it was not something bad for the country either.”

Transcripts of parliamentary hearings also suggest that at least some South Korean leaders viewed prostitution as something of a necessity. In one exchange in 1960, two lawmakers urged the government to train a supply of prostitutes to meet what one called the “natural needs” of allied soldiers and prevent them from spending their dollars in Japan instead of South Korea. The deputy home minister at the time, Lee Sung-woo, replied that the government had made some improvements in the “supply of prostitutes” and the “recreational system” for American troops.

Both Mr. Kim and Ms. Moon back the women’s assertions that the control of venereal disease was a driving factor for the two governments. They say the governments’ coordination became especially pronounced as Korean fears about an American pullout increased after President Richard M. Nixon announced plans in 1969 to reduce the number of American troops in South Korea.

“The idea was to create an environment where the guests were treated well in the camp towns to discourage them from leaving,” Mr. Kim said in the television interview.

Ms. Moon, a Wellesley College professor, said that the minutes of meetings between American military officials and Korean bureaucrats in the 1970s showed the lengths the two countries went to prevent epidemics. The minutes included recommendations to “isolate” women who were sick and ensure that they received treatment, government efforts to register prostitutes and require them to carry medical certification and a 1976 report about joint raids to apprehend prostitutes who were unregistered or failed to attend medical checkups.

These days, camp towns still exist, but as the Korean economy took off, women from the Philippines began replacing them.

Many former prostitutes live in the camp towns, isolated from mainstream society, which shuns them. Most are poor. Some are haunted by the memories of the mixed-race children they put up for adoption overseas.

Jeon, 71, who agreed to talk only if she was identified by just her surname, said she was an 18-year-old war orphan in 1956 when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near the border with North Korea. She had a son in the 1960s, but she became convinced that he would have a better future in the United States and gave him up for adoption when he was 13.

About 10 years ago, her son, now an American soldier, returned to visit. She told him to forget her.

“I failed as a mother,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives on welfare checks and the little cash she earns selling items she picks from other people’s trash. “I have no right to depend on him now.”

“The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she said. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”