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No way out

International | A deadly fire in South Korea sheds new light on the scandal of forced prostitution around the world

Issue: "TNIV makes its debut," Feb. 23, 2002

Thirty million Koreans travel to their hometowns during the long Lunar New Year holiday (known elsewhere in Asia as Chinese New Year). South Korea's stock markets and newspapers, along with most other businesses, closed down for the four-day holiday early this month. But for workers in the country's red-light districts, the day is never done.

A bar in the city of Kunsan south of Seoul burned to the ground at midday just before the holiday. Inside 14 prostitutes and one male employee died. Initial press reports claimed that "bar staff" succumbed to the blaze "sleeping in rooms above the establishment," as a blurb in the Korea Herald put it. But what actually happened reveals more than accidental tragedy visited on workers of the night.

When the fire broke out, the young women, ranging in age from late teens to mid-twenties, were asleep on the building's first floor after working through the night as prostitutes. They could not escape because owner Lee Song-il had equipped all exits with locks that could only be opened with an outside key.

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Some of the women, along with a 24-year-old male manager named Kim In-shik, tried to escape through the second floor. They suffocated after finding those exits also locked. Four victims initially survived the blaze but died soon after in a hospital.

One-way locks are the stock in trade for sex traffickers, according to Gary Haugen, director of International Justice Mission. "It's how the traffickers compel the services of women who are forced into prostitution," he said. On his desk Mr. Haugen keeps a padlock pried from a brothel in Bombay. It's a reminder of the prison conditions endured by many who don't choose prostitution but are trapped into it. Breaking a lock, he says, is usually the first act of investigators and police who free women from what he calls "the ugliest and most preventable manmade disaster on the earth today."

Investigators are learning that anywhere from half a million to 2 million women and girls are forced into prostitution each year. Half of those are from Asia. Most are minors. And most wind up in foreign countries where they do not understand the language, much less their legal rights. Poverty is no indicator of trafficking sources. South Korea is a leader on human rights and democracy in Asia, broadly speaking, but has done little to combat its worsening problem.

Growing public awareness (see "No sale," March 25, 2000) and a congressional mandate (the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000) led the U.S. State Department to launch anti-trafficking programs beginning in 2000. Prompted by hundreds of incidents like the Kunsan fire, the State Department earlier this month cabled U.S. embassies around the world to solicit local data on forced prostitution. That information will be included in the government's first worldwide report on sex trafficking-due in June-and could lead to sanctions against countries not taking the problem seriously enough.

"The unbelievable fact about forced prostitution and sex trafficking is that it requires the perpetrators to commit a number of felonies and then hold those out to the public because that is your customer base," said Mr. Haugen. Pimps not only kidnap women, they also have to circumnavigate immigration officials if they move women across borders. And they must conform to the look of legitimate businesses, while at the same time somehow advertising their wares. "None of that can exist without the complicity of street-level law enforcement."

Hence, police in Kunsan at first told reporters the victims were "bar staff." But the case gained notoriety when the bar owner, Mr. Lee, admitted that he had installed the locks. During a police interrogation, he confessed to confining the women in the building and forcing them to engage in prostitution. Police also could not overlook evidence found at the scene, partially burned diaries that yielded a glimpse of their ordeal in the women's own words.

"I miss home. A hopeless tomorrow. How am I supposed to live?" read one.

"Already a year has been passed since I came here. My mind and body are so tired. I hate myself. I want to return to the old me," another said.

The burned pub became the site of a memorial service for the victims on Feb. 7, with 300 family members and local residents attending. Relatives wept before incense altars while activists spoke to the community. "How can we shed our guilt of not hearing your voices of suffering when your spirits had already been suffocated while being confined in those rooms?" said Lee Kyong-sook, a representative of the Korea Women's Associations United. She called for a thorough investigation of the fire and for national legislation against sex trafficking.

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