The Great Famine of the 1990s changed North Korean society so profoundly that we are still trying to understand the breadth and depth of that change. During and after the famine, millions of North Koreans grasped at any survival strategy necessary to feed themselves. Those who did not change, and whom the state did not feed, died. For thousands of North Korean women, prostitution was the survival strategy of last resort to feed themselves, and often, their children.
In Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, the sex trade was invisible to the outside world. That began to change when Chinese traffickers and johns forced thousands of female famine refugees into the sex trade. By the end of the great famine, prostitution had become stealthily ubiquitous inside North Korea. It also became more organized and more predatory, with state officials playing a growing role its patronage and protection.
In Hamheung in 2008, a number of high-ranking party officials were accused of patronizing a tea house that also sold sex, and for protecting it against police interference. In Hyesan in 2009, the manager of a state-run inn frequently patronized by central party officials was arrested for pimping women and girls, some in their mid-teens. North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform” drove more women into the sex trade. By 2010, prostitution in Chongjin had been organized by “couple managers” who matched customers, often soldiers, with sex workers, often female university students, and sometimes women who had become dependent on drugs. Last year, the manager of a North Korean factory in China was accused of pimping out female factory workers.
The reports do not suggest that the state has consciously chosen to tolerate or profit from the sex trade as a matter of policy. The security forces periodically crack down on the sex trade, but inevitably, when corrupt authorities attempt to police a profitable trade, the authorities begin to see that trade as just another way to supplement their pay. More fundamentally, in a society where officials are the law, where enforcement is arbitrary, and where the state profits from trade at least indirectly, it can be hard to tell the difference between corruption and state policy. Today, the Daily NK reports that prostitution is increasingly run by well-connected businessmen and protected by the officials they’re connected with:
The sex industry in North Korea is becoming more systematic in large cities, as the number of pimps who lure in young workers is on the rise, and Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] officials who are tasked with cracking down on sex work are looking the other way, leaving the door open for prostitution around the clock, Daily NK has learned.
This is the first report I’ve seen of organized prostitution in the capital.
“In Pyongyang and other major cities, more professional prostitution rings that use young women to make money are surfacing,” a source in South Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “People who run these operations bribe everyone from MPS agents to night patrol members under the same unit so they can do business.”
As is the case in South Korea, prostitution in North Korea tends to congregate in neighborhoods near train stations.
“In areas like Hamheung, Chongjin, and other large cities, if you go to train stations and areas around the marketplace, you’ll easily see older women approaching men and asking if they’d like ‘temporary lodging,'” he said. “They usually go up to well-dressed officials who seem to be on business trips or military officials, telling them they have full amenities (code for room and board and women of all ages).”
Although the price differs by region, mostly for women in their early teens and 20s, it costs roughly 40,000 to 50,000 KPW [5-6 USD], while for those in their 30s, it’s about 20,000 to 30,000 KPW [2.5-3.7 USD] The women who direct customers to the facility typically get a 30 percent cut, while the homeowner and sex worker split up the remaining sum. The latter two will for the most part make at least 10,000 KPW [1.2 USD] per case, according to the source.
“These days since sex businesses receive protection from crackdown agents, the industry has been growing, leading to squabbles over customers,” the source said. “With more operations up and running, there are even allotted schedules. During the day, all businesses run together, while at night, the hours are divided into early and late operations.
Yet again, the reports suggest that regime officials both patronize and protect the sex trade:
Party cadres and officials in the judicial system are frequent clients of sex services, and many venture out to places like Pyongyang’s Munsuwon and high-end public bathhouses such as ‘Eundeokwon’ with prostitutes, said the source. In the North, there are baths designated specifically for married couples and can only be used after national IDs are verified.
Some officials also use the sex trade to entrap and extort johns.
Also profiting from the business are safety officials, who not only receive bribes for turning a blind eye, they sometimes use pretty women to draw customers into the ‘temporary lodging’ facility and catch them in the act, he asserted. Then, they blackmail the clients for large sums of money or in some cases, call up for regular bribes. If customers do not comply, the officials report them and use it as an opportunity to add more ‘points’ and get a leg up at work.
North Korean society’s acceptance of prostitution will probably remain until long after unification; after all, prostitution still carries on more-or-less openly in South Korea, under terms that can also be very exploitative. Different societies take different views on whether the sex trade, at least between consenting and unmarried adults, is inherently evil, but the conditions in which North Korean women must sell their bodies is unquestionably evil. Their working conditions are horrible — for the obvious reasons, of course, but also for the general lack of health care available to those who became pregnant, or contract STDs. Some turn to addictive drugs, in the false hope that they can protect them from contracting disease.
The role of state officials in organizing and profiting from the sex trade is repellant, but still not as repellant as the state’s role in creating the conditions that force women into prostitution to begin with. Women who ought to be doctors should not be sex workers. Of North Korea’s many tragedies, there may be none greater than all the human potential destroyed by its unjust and unequal political system.