Seoul, South Korea - Problems with parents, domestic abuse and academic pressure are driving South Korean children to life on the streets with many teenagers turning to prostitution to survive, a report by the Seoul city government says.
An estimated 200,000 youths run away from home each year, according to the report released by the municipal government in late September, citing South Korean police. A survey of 175 female teen runaways by the municipal government found half had been led into the sex industry.
The report also shows 40.7 per cent of female runaway teens have experienced sexual violence.
This reporter spent several weeks talking to runaway girls. All were between age 12 and 18, and their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Most lived in a "runaway family", the term they use to describe a group of teenagers who meet in Internet chat rooms and develop relationships based on selling sex.
Such "families" often sleep together in hotel rooms where they've sold sex beforehand. Or they're made up of underage prostitutes who seek shelter in rooms owned by individuals who, in return, expect them to do anything from chores to selling sex.
A recent survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality & Family shows 51.3 per cent of runaways questioned in 2011 left home because of “conflict with parents”. School was also a factor with 18.5 per cent leaving because they “hate school and study”, and 13.3 per cent citing “pressure on academic performance”.
"Intense pressure" on students begins as early as age 12, says an education professor at a South Korean university who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity in the country.
"High school students are being forced to study every day after school until late at night, often until 1am, by their parents so they can get into a good college, a requisite for obtaining high-paying jobs," the professor says.
South Korean students have ranked in the top 10 among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries annually since 2000, he notes.
From schoolgirl to working girl
Yu-ja, 18, says she first ran away at age 12 from her parent's home so she wouldn't have to study and could instead, "play, chat and smoke with her school friends all night at playgrounds". She left for a few days, sleeping on subway trains.
Yu-ja was 14 the second time she fled home. This time she began selling sex for about $275 through a popular online chatting service among underage runaways. A man in his early 20s picked her up at the Internet café where she had solicited him, and took her to his studio apartment in the capital Seoul, a city of more than 10 million people.
The United Voice for Eradication of Prostitution is a non-governmental organisation that counsels teenage prostitutes, educates them on the pitfalls of selling sex, and administers rehabilitation programmes.
Technology has also made it easier for buyers of sex and teens who sell it, including a proliferation of sex-trade apps downloaded on to smart phones, the group’s counsellor Shim A-ra says. At least a dozen prostitution websites operate online, she adds.
"There has been an explosion of such sites in the last few years," says Shim.
The websites are also difficult to police. After authorities shut them down, many operators simply change names and reemerge.
"No one ever told me it was wrong to prostitute myself, including my schoolteachers,” Yu-ja says. “I wish someone had told me. Girls should be taught that from an early age in class here in South Korea, but they aren't."
The money she earned from her first customer enabled Yu-ja to pay for three weeks of lodging at a jjimjilbang, or public bathhouse. She then, through online chatting, hooked up with a "family" of runaway teen prostitutes.
Yu-ja says the last time she ran away she was 17 and had been kidnapped by her father to his residence from her mother's home. There, he beat her regularly for refusing to take part in track and field activities in high school, so she could get into college despite poor grades.
Yu-ja now lives with Hyun-ju, a 12-year-old runaway prostitute who was sexually abused when she was in third grade by an uncle who lived at her home. Yu-ja came to the interview with Mi-kyung, a 15-year-old runaway from the southern port city of Busan whom she also resides with.
Mi-kyung says the reason she first fled home was that, like Yu-ja, she wanted to avoid schoolwork and be with friends. Showing up with hair and lips coloured bright red, Mi-kyung insisted she had never sold sex despite living on the streets for years. Her claim, says the centre's head counselor Cheon Bo-gyeong, may be false since underage runaways are extremely reluctant to talk about sex work.
The total number of prostitutes in South Korea is a highly contentious issue. Women's rights groups and other NGOs estimate hundreds of thousands of women work in the business.
The government, however, disputes these figures. According to a 2007 government report, 147,000 women sell sex for a living - a figure deemed far too low by rights groups.
“According to the survey, 44,804 establishments are estimated to be involved in mediating sex trade, 147,000 women in providing sex service,” says the 2007 Ministry of Gender Equality & Family report .
An official at the ministry refused to comment on this story.
Cheon says runaway teens are sometimes raped if they refuse to indulge in unorthodox sexual practices.
"One customer even slipped his wallet into a teenage prostitute's bag after having sex with her at a motel. He refused to pay her for her services after accusing her of stealing his wallet and beating her for the theft," Cheon recalls.
Shim says the most common way teenage girls become prostitutes is for boys or men in their 20s to trick them into selling themselves.
She cited the case of an 18-year-old runaway prostitute she had counselled. Three weeks after becoming romantically involved with a young man and moving in with him, he and seven friends gang-raped her.
"Their intention was to sell her to other men, but she contacted an older woman friend from an Internet café when she was with the eight rapists, who helped her escape to a shelter for underage runaway prostitutes," says Shim.
It is common for teenage prostitutes to contract syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. "The girls more frequently go without condoms, since most of their male customers refuse to wear them," Shim says.
Once young women get involved in the business, it's difficult for them to leave, Cheon says. "About half of the girls we counsel turn away from prostitution, but the other half go back to selling sex."
Even for those who manage to escape the sex trade, their past lives often come back to haunt. Former employers at entertainment venues often track down their former prostitutes and threaten to tell their families unless they pay a fee. Many subsequently are ostracized from their husbands and families after they discover the women are former prostitutes.
As the interview wraps up, Yu-ja confesses she is "now tired of being a prostitute". Since she is old enough to earn a legitimate living, she says she plans to support herself by "cleaning Internet cafés".