*For the protection of all parties involved (as well as a request from the interviewee herself), all names and identifiable information have been redacted. The interview was conducted virtually via FaceTime to comply with CDC and CDPH Health Guidelines for COVID-19.
**Trigger Warning: This article recounts the interviewee’s experiences of sexual exploitation, trafficking, physical abuse, and rape.
DANIEL SEUNG TAK OH WRITES — Human trafficking is a major humanitarian issue that affects all societies regardless of government, economy, or culture. Although exact numbers are hard to find, the International Labor Organization reports that around 1 in every 4 trafficked humans (an estimated 5 million people) are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Whether you live in a penthouse overlooking Beverly Hills or a destitute favela in the “City of God”, sex trafficking is a booming criminal enterprise that is creeping into every level of society in every country across the globe.
No continent has been a leader in this growing modern slave trade more than Asia. With the exception of Eritrea, Brazil, and South Sudan, 7 of the top 11 countries with the highest number of victims in sex trafficking are all in Asia. Many of these Asian countries you may already know due to international news regarding this issue: Thailand, India, Bangladesh, China, etc. However, most people are unaware of one country that has been laggard in cracking down on sex trafficking. It’s the country that has made international headlines for very different reasons, namely for the top-charting music and award-winning films sweeping mainstream pop culture; a phenomenon that people have labeled the “K-Wave”.
South Korea, like other Asian countries, is a rising economic power that has also seen a steady rise in sex trafficking. It holds a “golden triangle” of the sex trafficking industry, where it acts as:
- a country of origin in which native women and children are exported internationally
- a country of destination for foreign victims who are imported before being internally trafficked
- a country of transit in which sex traffickers use it as a stop before export to other countries, primarily China and Russia.
Non-Koreans have most likely never heard of such an issue in South Korea due to many factors. Most of the organizations and gangs that run the sex trafficking rings operate within the country. The rings are well organized and often work alongside corrupt government officials, law enforcement, and — it is rumored – perhaps even the United States Forces Korea and the US Embassy, albeit with an extreme level of discretion (For more information, please look up “Juicy Bars” and “UN Madams”). One reason that sex trafficking is so hard to control or even investigate in South Korea is that a majority of the victims are primarily children under the age of 16, with more than 80% of victims being poor runaways, according to Stand Up Against Sex-Trafficking of Minors (aka Teens Up). ECPAT International has reported that South Korea is known as a source country for child sex tourists in the global criminal underground. Simply put, sex trafficking in South Korea can credit its unhindered rise due to the fact that the majority of victims are the most vulnerable, voiceless and exploitable members of society.
Even I, a proud Korean-American born into an immigrant family whose parents still live in South Korea, was completely unaware of this issue. And I would have never known about the scope of the sex trafficking industry in a country that prides itself in its rags-to-riches, always progressing-forward identity. For me, Korea was the country where my parents lived, the country that set records at the Academy Awards and the country that makes a distinct genre of music that I neither love or hate. But that all changed when I met another fellow Korean-American whom I respectfully call Madam Violet.
I was introduced to Madam Violet (not her real or street name) while doing research on the aftermath of the Burning Sun scandal that has rocked the Korean entertainment industry. Madam Violet seemed like a normal, quiet Korean lady, but she has a legendary reputation in LA’s Koreatown. Some said she was a former K-pop idol trainee who came to the US after a scandalous affair. Others said she was a former actress/trainee who simply didn’t make it in show business. With all the speculation and mystery surrounding this middle-aged small business owner, I knew that Madam Violet was someone I needed to talk to. However, I had no idea what I was in for when she told me her astonishing, depressing story.
Madam Violet was a victim of a major multinational sex trafficking ring that was based in Seoul (i.e., the sprawling capital of South Korea). Like many women who have been in her shoes, she was a teen runaway from a poor family looking for better opportunities in South Korea’s economic and cultural center. Instead, she wound up tricked and exploited, ultimately facing one of the worst experiences that could befall a human being. Her cynical demeanor, characterized by dark comedic comments, reflects the true nature of what some activists like Jin-kyeong Cho of Teens Up have called Korea’s “sex trafficking epidemic.”
At this point, I no longer wanted to write about a K-pop scandal because I had unmasked a far more alarming issue. Madam Violet was just one of thousands who have been victim to a mass silencing: thousands of women, especially underaged girls, exploited and abused by a society that has been praised for progressiveness. Yet most of the world seemed to hear about Korea only with regard to the K-pop group BTS, the movie “Parasite” and North Korean nukes.
That said, I wanted to provide a little insight into what has too often been written off as “irrelevant” in Korean society. I hope that just a few more people can learn about this social calamity that persists today. I also hope people come to care about this issue. Herewith:
The Interview (translated into English)
Madam Violet is the owner/manager of a “traditional” Korean karaoke bar and gastropub. She says that she is the only female to own and run a noraebang with doumi girls [paid escorts whose job is to “bring out fun vibes” for their clients. In the US, doumi girls are prohibited from having sex with their clients or meeting them outside of the place of business] in the “Heart of K-Town”. Due to LA County’s COVID-19 restrictions on bars and recreational businesses, Madam Violet is now experiencing serious financial struggles that may make her close her bar for good. And yet, she says that the global pandemic has transformed her bar into an establishment with a “greater purpose:” becoming a safe haven for a growing number of Korean women seeking refuge from abusive husbands (especially housewives whose husbands have lost their jobs due to the pandemic).
Madam Violet told me that although business is struggling due to COVID-19 restrictions, she plans to open her doors to all women in desperate need of a safe space. As we spoke, she would often pause the conversation to address the continuous stream of women coming in to seek her help. I noticed that she would not turn anyone away. And, after hearing her story, I could see why.
Madam Violet: I want you to make it clear that I am not a “great survivor” story. I am not some legend or hero or exception that has some glorious rags-to-riches story you can make a movie out of. My story is the story of the Korean woman: the one that y’all don’t talk about, the one that gets silenced by all the hallyu trends [Chinese word meaning Korean Wave, referring to the phenomenal growth of Korean culture in the global mainstream], the one y’all ignore and say “don’t exist” or are “a select few”… You probably know many women like me with the same experiences, you just don’t want to hear them.
Don’t get it twisted, I am not saying that every Korean woman goes through this. Nor am I saying that I am speaking on behalf of all Korean women, or women in general for that matter. I just want to make it clear to you that my experience is not unique, and the haan [a concept of shared sorrow/loss of identity, said to be an essential element of the Korean identity] that I have is the same haan shared by many others like me. Does that make sense?
Q: Yes. I understand. To be honest, I think that’s why I want to write about this. People need to know. Do you mind starting this [interview] off with how you got into the [sex trafficking] ring?
Sure, we can do that. Actually, I’m going to start from the very beginning if that’s alright. Let me put my situation into context.
I don’t remember too much about my early childhood. It was the early 80’s so all of us were fed up with the years of dictatorship, coups, and just elitist right-wing bulls*** [South Korea had historically been ruled by authoritarian leaders since its founding in 1948. Its first free and fair democratic election was in 1987, after a massive national movement forcing the government to make concessions]. From what my mom told me, my dad was walking back home from work one day when the police stopped and beat him to death. They thought he was attending a protest, since those were almost as common as getting a haircut. I don’t remember him too much because I was so young. However, I do remember that because of his death my mom and I had a hard life and lived in an absolute [down-and-out] neighborhood. We lived in Jeolla Province, in the countryside. We were living more like animals than humans. Like you know Parasite, right? The movie by Bong Joon Ho that got all those awards? That “poor” family were yangbans [historic term for the traditional aristocratic class of dynastic Korea] compared to us.
My story starts when I was 13, when I was a 1st-year middle school student. My mom had met this Samchon [literally means uncle, but colloquially is used to describe a male who is much older than the interviewer] who would take care of us or something like that. I didn’t really know their relationship but whatever it was, she trusted him. He’d always say the same thing: “She’s very pretty. She can be a big star. I can make her a star” and “she can be a model. I know a few guys, I can make her a model” or “She will make it big in Seoul. Let me take her to Seoul.” So that’s how I first got into Seoul.
Q: So your mom trusted this man enough to send you to Seoul by yourself?
(Bitterly laughs) She didn’t trust him, but I sure did. I sucked up every word that man said like an idiot. I can say he made me believe in myself, but in reality, I don’t think I saw any other option. That term, “Hell Korea?” That was us. I had no future, and that man was offering to give me one. I begged my mom to let me go with him. Like on my knees, ferociously rubbing my hands, crying ‘til I couldn’t make tears anymore. I wanted to get out and make it… no, I needed to get out and make it.
I was ashamed of my mom, ashamed of myself, of my entire family. I hated the way people talked about us, how they look at us. It felt like we were criminals, but the only crime we committed was being poor. “By any means necessary”, that’s what I told myself on the way to Seoul.
Q: What happened when you got to Seoul?
(A long pause) He… he tried to rape me. I pleaded with him, and when that didn’t work, I hit him. …. I can’t remember exactly what happened but I just remember him beating me ‘til I blacked out, and I blacked out two or three times. I remember the stuff he said, though: “Shut up, b****! You owe me! I’ll take you back!” He kept saying that while beating me. I thought I was going to die.
(pauses again) I guess he got tired or something happened, I just remember waking up in a van. There was another man there and he was younger. The younger guy was driving, while Samchon was in the passenger seat on the phone with someone. The guy on the other end of the phone seemed pissed, and it seemed like Samchon was trying to appease him. I don’t know what they were talking about but Samchon was saying stuff like, “Don’t worry she’s still fresh,” and “it was her fault, she’s a hard one,” and “I’ll sell cheap, c’mon don’t be like that.”
Q: “Still fresh?’ What does that mean?
Well, I was going to get to that later but let me explain real quick how pricing and status in the ring works. [Underaged] girls are the most expensive and highest in demand, so that’s why they try to get younger stock. The “freshest” ones are the girls between 12-14 years old, and those girls get the highest bids. But for every flaw the girl has, the price gets dropped. You get what I’m saying?
Q: I’m sorry I don’t really understand. What do you mean by “flaws” and how it “drops the price?”
No, it’s okay, you should probably know this before I continue. Like I said, 12-14 [years old] is “prime freshness” and most expensive. They don’t even try to bring new girls over the age of 16 since they don’t sell as well. Other factors get taken into account and dictate the price: looks, health, obedience, enjoyability, and even racial background. So, the most expensive girls are your “exotic” girls: white, black, or a mix of both. Then you have your “pure” Korean girls. We’re not that much cheaper, but we get less bids than the exotic ones. Finally, you got your “leftover” girls: the ones smuggled in from other Asian countries, mainly China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and some others. Those girls are a lot cheaper, and there are a lot more of them. They’re also the safest stock for the ring since the government couldn’t give two [expletive deleted] about what happens to them. Usually, they have set prices so no one has to place bids.
Q: I see… so how does that work into what you were saying previously?
(chuckles) Well, in case you weren’t listening, Samchon beat me like an old boxing bag. That’s why the guy on the phone was pissed, because I was a “pure” Korean but my value tanked once Samchon started beating me. I probably looked like a blue-demon child that no one would want to buy. I think that’s what the other man said when we arrived at the noraebang [Korean karaoke, often consists of private rooms and alcohol]. He said I looked like Chucky, that I was “unsellable garbage”.
Q: I’m assuming that the noraebang was a front for the ring?
Yeah, believe it or not, most of them are. Only a few of the nice ones, like the ones in the middle of Gangnam [a district in Southern Seoul, one of the wealthiest areas in South Korea], are legit businesses that don’t do prostitution. Generally, most noraebangs offer girls to whoever asks for them.
Samchon and I were taken to one of the private rooms, and there were two men waiting there for us. The younger of the two men told me to call him Keun Oppa [literally means Big Brother]. I only found this out later, but the older one was his lawyer.
Keun Oppa offered me a drink. When I said no, he slapped me across the face and told me not to be rude. Trying to show what little dignity I had, I held back my tears and took his drink. Keun Oppa, his lawyer, and Samchon went to the other side of the room while I sat in the corner next to the door. I can’t remember what they were discussing, but I just remember a few minutes after Samchon grabbed me by the neck and told me that I belonged to Keun Oppa now and I better be good. He said he would kill my mom if I wasn’t good.
Samchon left, and that was the last time I ever saw him again. Keun Oppa waved at me to come over and sit next to him. Once I sat down, his lawyer took out these papers from his briefcase and started talking about some technical [stuff] that I had no idea about. Something about a “body lease agreement” or whatever. Anyways, once he was done talking, the lawyer told me to sign the paper. I was too scared to say anything, so I signed the paper and he left.
Q: Help me understand. Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, so that paper was probably worthless. If anything, it would probably be great evidence for the police. What was the whole point of the lawyer and you signing the papers?
Good question. So yes, prostitution is illegal, and you would definitely go to jail if you’re involved. However, usually they get the girls to sign “employment” contracts. So officially, I was just an “employee” at whatever “business” the ring was using as a front. You wouldn’t understand since you’re American, but labor unions and worker rights don’t really exist back home. Essentially, your “boss” can do whatever they want to you. …. If I can be frank, the government just wants the business to pay the taxes. They don’t [care at all] about what the business actually does.
Q: That’s absolutely insane. I promise I’m not questioning you, it’s just… I’m just shocked and I don’t know how to really deal with that.
To be fair, it’s kind of the truth depending on your “status” in the ring. Like for the black and white girls… (pauses and looks at the ground, seeming bitter and clenching her jaw in anger).
The black and white girls… (chuckles bitterly) they got it good. You know they didn’t even have to have sex with their clients? Their “exotic nature” was good enough for those perverts. As long as they laughed a lot, drank with the men, maybe rubbed up on them, sang a few songs, and gave them a kiss at the end, the men still paid full price and seemed satisfied. Those girls really were employees. They didn’t know what it was like… (pauses again, then in a low angry voice while looking down) they didn’t have to go through what we went through… what I went through… I’m sorry, it’s just [what] they forced me to do… never mind, I’m sorry, I try not to be bitter. All of us girls suffered together, even if some suffered more than others.
She fell silent, then asked if I could give her a minute. I too thought a break would be nice, since this was arguably one of the more shocking and traumatic conversations I have had in my life. We simply sat in silence for quite some time before I hesitantly asked another question.
Q: I understand if you can’t talk more about it, but can you at least give me some insight as to what happened for you and the “other girls”?
… I was a “pure” Korean, so I was still in high demand and my price made my owners happy, but there are millions of young Korean girls out there. Yeah, I was profitable, but I was also replaceable. If, something happens to one of us the ring can just go out and find three more runaway kids. They had three of us to one room, and I’m being real … generous with the word “room”. It was really a closet, and we weren’t even valuable enough for an actual bathroom. We had a communal toilet, and the ring gave us a bucket of water to wash ourselves.
I think I might know what you’re thinking. Why would they treat us like that if we were so profitable, if our prices were almost as good as the “exotic” ones? Well, like I said, they could afford to. Yeah, I made them money, but if something happened to me they would just go and grab the next poor little Korean kid wanting to “make it” in the city. Like remember a few years ago, that Gwanak-gu case [referring to a 2015 criminal case in which a 14-year-old Korean girl who had been tricked into prostitution was found dead in a dumpster. The murderer admitted to the crime, infamously stating that “she was not worth the money”]? Like it caused a huge … storm because she was found on the “rich side” of Seoul, but that was a normal thing to happen back when I was in [the ring]. Every client we met up with, we always prepared ourselves mentally thinking it would be the last time we were alive. Are you satisfied with that answer?
I hesitantly asked if she could go into more detail since I didn’t quite understand her, and she agreed. Within about 10 minutes of talking, she fell silent, and I could see her trying to hold back tears. I myself found it hard to listen to the terrible experiences she had just told me. Although we both just ended up staring blankly into our screens, it was as if we both subconsciously communicated that neither of us really wanted to talk about this anymore.
Q: Yes… again I’m sorry … is there any last thing you want to add?
Not really, I said what I needed to say. Don’t feel bad, I agreed to this. I’m not angry at you so don’t ever think you did anything wrong… I guess I’m surprised people like you care. Like I said before, what I went through isn’t just my story. It’s a story of thousands. Remember that.
When I first “sat down” with Madam Violet, I saw a small, middle-aged Korean woman who ran a small business like all the other Korean women I had grown up with living in Southern California. However, after our conversation Madam Violet became somewhat of a hero to me. This woman had literally been put through hell and received no justice for the atrocious crimes committed against her, yet all I have seen from her was compassion and humility.
As she said, Madam Violet is not an icon. Her story is a testament to not just her triumph over such an abomination, but to the experiences of millions of women who were in her position. You may very well know a “Madam Violet”. I continue to wonder what the true goal of the interview was, what my intentions were when writing this piece, and why Madam Violet really chose to talk to some average college student. I may not find an answer to those questions at this time, but what I do have an answer to is a question you might be asking yourself right now: well, so what? What can we do, Daniel?
Despite what the media, the police, or the government says, we can actually end sex trafficking. It is not a unique problem that only exists in some backwards society. It is a universally shared “han” that affects millions of people in every single country. It is not some tragic reality that we cry about, or make an Instagram post, then forget in two weeks’ time. Sex trafficking is a cosmopolitan problem that has a solution, and it is imperative for all of us, regardless of country, creed, or culture, to actively fight for that solution. From implementing progressive programs to reducing generational poverty, to pushing our government to pass harsher laws on people who engage in the sex trafficking industry, and to ensuring gender equity and ensuring that women are protected from falling victim to this menace it is up to us to stop it. The global citizens of the world are truly the only ones who can stop it. Madam Violet should be our rallying cry, a call to arms against the exploitation and enslavement of millions of women and children like her. Just as she inferred at the end, we can end this as long as we actually care to.
Daniel Oh is an undergraduate student at LMU and a member of the Asia Media writing staff.