A man with intellectual disabilities who was enslaved at a salt field in Sinan, South Jeolla Province (Yonhap)
In July 2016, a woman from Thailand came to Korea believing she could work as a masseuse. As soon as she arrived in Incheon, she was sent by brokers to a massage parlor in Gwangju. There, the owner took her passport and told her to go to a room for a test. Soon after, she was raped by the owner.
When she said she wanted to return to Thailand, the owner and the brokers demanded that she pay them 2 million won ($1,775) in commission before leaving. She was forced to stay and work in the massage parlor 24 hours a day.
She eventually ran away and went to the police for help. The authorities were not able to find the brokers and the owner was charged with sexual assault – but not for human trafficking. A court found him not guilty of forced prostitution.
Years later, another woman from Thailand came to Korea, also to earn money doing massages. When she arrived, her broker changed his word, telling her that she could earn 40,000 won per session as a prostitute and that she would not be paid for the first 50 sessions due to commission fees. When she said she wanted to return home, they locked her up in a motel.
She escaped and went to the police, but the broker was only punished for unlawful imprisonment -- not for trafficking. She even became a suspect for prostitution.
Lawyer Lee So-ah from civic group Lawyers for Public Interests said Friday in a debate on human trafficking in Korea that such crimes continue to occur in areas such as Incheon; Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province; Busan and Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province.
“These criminal acts are not investigated as human trafficking and only the owners of parlors are punished while brokers get away with it,” she said.
“Human trafficking is an organized crime so all related links should be investigated. But investigative agencies and police do not take action because there are no punishment regulations.”
The experts -- from an institute, a civic group, a law firm and an international organization -- who attended the debate agreed that the government does not properly deal with the human trafficking cases that frequently occur in Korea.
Migrant women who come to perform or work as masseuses have been forced into prostitution, and people with intellectual disabilities have been forced into slavery in salt fields, said lawyer Kim Jong-chul from civic group Advocates for Public Interest Law.
Although such crimes frequently take place, “There has been only one person punished for sex trafficking and three people for preparations for organ trafficking in the last seven years. There has been no punishment for labor trafficking,” Kim said.
“This is because there are no penalty provisions in laws that can punish many kinds of human trafficking cases comprehensively,” he said.
In 2014, on an island in Jeollanam-do, it was reported that more than 60 people with intellectual disabilities had been exploited in salt fields for more than 10 years. However, most of the perpetrators were sentenced to probation. This is because the police saw this as an unpaid wages incident, not a human trafficking case, Kim said.
Following growing calls from civic groups for a proper trafficking law over the past few decades, a new special bill on human trafficking was introduced by Rep. Lee Su-jin from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea at the end of 2020.
However, experts at Friday’s debate said that the bill is not enough to fight human trafficking.
Choi Min-young, a researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, said, “A special bill being proposed is not enough to eradicate human trafficking.”
“The biggest problem with the proposal is that there is no punishment clause for human trafficking. Those committing human trafficking will still be punished by existing prostitution laws or immigration laws.”
“If the bill does not include punishment regulations, why do we need a separate new law? Without punishment, only (human trafficking) victims will exist without perpetrators,” she said.
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org)