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.

"The police have designated a certain period every year devoted to crackdowns on prostitution as well as regular police raids," a Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency officer said on condition of anonymity. "However, the size of the police force is very limited and there are other divisions we need to take care of, so it is difficult for us to exert our full force on prostitution problems."

Kim Kang-ja, a former chief of Jongam Police Station who led a number of crackdowns on the industry in the 2000s, echoed these sentiments.

"The sex-trafficking population is too large for the police to take under control," said Kim, who is currently a visiting professor at the department of police administration at Hannam University in Daejeon. "For each police station, only 3-4 police officers on average work on the prostitution problem. Therefore, in reality, they are only able to deal with those incidents that are notified to us because of the limited number of police."

Kim said that a significant increase in police manpower would be needed to meaningfully curb the sale of sex.

"In order to truly crack down on the industry, it is absolutely necessary to increase the number of police that specifically deal with this issue. There are not enough police to enforce the law on this business," she said.

As with other illicit trades, however, questions have been raised over whether the law has its intended effect. Not everyone agrees that greater enforcement would even corresponded to a reduction in the industry.

Kim Sang-kwon, a professor at the school of business administration at Halla University in Wonju, said that the law was in fact being enforced, but not with the result of a reduction in the sex trade. Instead, he said, enforcement was precisely what had allowed it to flourish.

"The strict enforcement contributes to the openness of industry," said Kim.

"The economic mechanism behind the effect is very simple. The success of enforcement in one area reduces the prostitution supply and leads to a higher price. Since the costs to enter are very low, higher prices induce more people to open the business in other areas where they can avoid detection. The more intense the enforcement, the more widespread the industry becomes."

Kim claimed that some of the most unsavory aspects attributed to the sex industry were actually the result of legal interference.

"Even though the higher price contributes to reducing the demand for prostitution, total revenue increases if the demand is inelastic," he said.

"The increased rewards, in turn, stimulate more people to engage in prostitution and to invent legal but unethical types of prostitution. In addition, the steady source of income could lure criminals to organise and let them bribe the public officials. In the absence of the law these problems would have been unlikely to occur."

With the Constitutional Court set to review the 2004 law following an earlier legal challenge, there is a real possibility that the legal framework could soon change. The review stems from a case involving a 42-year-old prostitute indicted for having sex with a 23-year-old man for money.

The Seoul court hearing the case requested a constitutional review of the law, which punishes both buyers and sellers with up to one year of imprisonment or fines of up to 3 million won, on the grounds that it interfered with individual autonomy.

Women's groups and legal experts have broadly expressed support for ending punishments for sex workers, while some observers have called for decriminalization of buying as well as selling sex.

Matthias Lehmann, an independent researcher from Germany and member of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, recently spent a year in Seoul investigating the impact of the law, interviewing women working in the industry, NGOs and other concerned parties. He said the current legal situation was doing more harm than good.

"Verbal and physical abuse of sex workers through law enforcement is a reality in South Korea. ...

The decriminalization of sex work wouldn't solve all problems in the sex industry -- just like laws in other industries don't root out exploitation and abuse -- but evidence-based research indicates that, under the right conditions, legal sex work can be organised in a way that enhances workers' safety and job satisfaction," Lehmann said.

Some coming from an economics viewpoint argue that the authorities would never be able to stop prostitution even if they really wanted to. Kim of Halla University said the legal response had to take into account the reality of human nature and the rules of supply and demand.

"Sex enables us to pass genes on to the next generation. We humans are programmed to have sex for survival of the human species. It is unlikely that the law can eliminate the desire for sex previously satisfied through prostitution. The unsatisfied desire remains as pent-up demand. The demand creates the market," said Kim.

"If history has taught us anything, it is that the market forces have won over any institution against them in the long run. To avoid long-term distortions and unintended consequences, we should make the current law market-friendly."