Is the prostitution law enforced?

Is the prostitution law enforced?
This massage parlor doubles as a brothel in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.

In Korea, an establishment selling sex is rarely more than a short walk or mouse click away. Such is the visibility of massage parlours, room salons and karaoke joints that facilitate prostitution that a first-time visitor to a Korean city could be forgiven for thinking the sex trade was legal.

Even some 40 per cent of Koreans claimed to be unaware that prostitution was illegal in a survey carried out in 2001, before the introduction of the 2004 Special Law on Prostitution that criminalizes both the buying and selling of sex.

Despite the apparent openness of an industry estimated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to be worth almost 7 trillion won (S$8 billion) annually, the authorities make a sizable number of arrests related to prostitution every year.

The number, however, has been in steep decline in recent years: From a peak of 73,000 in 2009, 21,123 people were arrested last year for organising, patronizing or working in the industry.

The persistent visibility and scale of the industry has caused some working in outreach services for prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking to question how serious the authorities really are about the issue. Ahn Chang-hye, a former worker at one such support centre in Seoul, acknowledged the authorities faced challenges in catching perpetrators "in the act," but insisted they could be doing more.

"Despite the anti-prostitution law saying that even advertising or enticing the buying or selling of sex is illegal and is punishable, it all depends on how badly the government wants to eradicate it and how many resources the government is willing to put in," said Ahn.

"I believe that the police can do a much better job as long as they work with more passion, but ... busting brothels is not one of their priorities."

Those in law enforcement deny apathy is the reason for the prevalence of the industry, instead pointing to limited resources and difficulties collecting evidence.

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