Event Report “Fight Against Trafficking in Persons in South Korea”

Asian Institute, University of Toronto
Dr. Tae-Ung Baik speaking at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto on 18 March 2016 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

“Fights Against Trafficking in Persons in South Korea” was an event hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto on 18 March 2016. It was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Korea and co-sponsored by the Asian Institute. This event featured Dr. Tae-Ung Baik from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. At the school, Dr. Baik lectures on comparative law, the law of South Korea, and as well as international human rights law. Dr. Baik’s book, “Emerging Regional Human Rights Systems in Asia”, discusses the developing elements of the human rights system over the past few decades – with a primary focus on East Asia. Although South Korea experiences both sex and labour trafficking, the nation received the highest ranking of Tier 1 in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by the U.S. Department of State. This indicates that the South Korean government fully complies with the protection of trafficking victims. During the presentation, Dr. Baik detailed on human trafficking in South Korea and provided solid case studies to support his arguments.

Dr. Baik began his presentation by discussing specific case studies of human trafficking in South Korea that has generated extensive debate over the past several years – one of which is the issue of comfort women. Some scholars have suggested that the institution of comfort women was a form of human trafficking initiated by the Japanese military government. On a legal basis, if a government was a perpetrator of human trafficking, then such a case can be constituted as a crime against humanity under international law. Back in 2001, South Korea was ranked as a Tier 3 country under the TIP Report. This was because the South Korean government had not complied with the minimum standards of protection offered to trafficking victims. However, after the government took measures in 2002, its ranking climbed to Tier 1. Nevertheless, according to the 2015 TIP report, “The Republic of Korea is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor”. Human trafficking remains as an ongoing issue in the Korean nation despite the government’s efforts to tackle such problem and alleviation in TIP rankings.

Furthermore, labour trafficking of the mentally disabled also remains a problem in South Korea. These individuals are kidnapped to remote, secluded areas and forced to work indefinitely. Dr. Baik indicates that South Korea’s National Assembly enacted laws to deal with labour trafficking cases as late as 2013. Unfortunately, the protection mechanism set by this law remains weak; plus, the law’s definition of “victims” fails to recognize all those who have been affected by trafficking. Because of this, if there is a “consent” given or if the case is ambiguous, the victimized may not receive the legal label of a “victim” under this law – resulting in injustices for many.

Concerning sex trafficking, Dr. Baik explained that South Korea’s former legal system aimed to prevent “morally depraved behaviour”. Prostitution was stigmatized and frowned upon on moral grounds; all actors involved in a prostitution ring – the pimp, the customer, and the prostitute – were to be criminally charged and prosecuted. Such a law was highly hypocritical and not to mention, unproductive in South Korea’s moral fight against prostitution. This law was later amended to instead punish those who arrange sex trafficking. Increased legal protection was offered to minors who were trafficked – even if “consent” was given, traffickers were to face prosecution. However, the law has yet to provide the same protection to adults. With the Sex Trafficking Punishment Act, the buying and selling of sex became entirely criminalized. This included all sex-related industries. Those who arranged and ran sex trafficking, labour trafficking, and brothels could all be legally prosecuted, but not the victims. However, the Act fails to provide protection to all the “victims” involved in the sex-related industries. The Act fails to include adults who “voluntarily” participated out of economic prospects or if they have given “consent” to prostitution.

Dr. Baik explained that prostitutes periodically stage protests against the Anti-prostitution Law as an infringement upon their rights. South Korea’s constitution states that “freedoms and rights of citizens may be restricted by law only when absolutely necessary for national security, maintenance of law and order, public welfare, and that such restrictions may not violate essential aspects of fundamental rights”. The question raised here is whether banning prostitution properly justifies the circumstances of the maintenance of law and order and public welfare. Dr. Baik stated that some sex workers have no other means to make a living. Consequently, they are “forced” to participate in the sex industry. To punish them with a criminal sentence is indeed infringing upon their fundamental human rights.

Dr. Baik drew up a recent case study to further discuss the flaws within South Korea’s legal system. Sung Hyun Ah, a famous actress in South Korea, was reported to have committed prostitution with a businessman for USD $47,000. The sponsor of this sex trade was arrested and punished, but Sung herself was also prosecuted and fined approximately USD $1,700. Sung appealed the sentence and brought her case to the Supreme Court. Sung claimed that she was not selling sex, but was looking for a serious relationship. The South Korean law states that offering sexual intercourse to “an unspecified person in return for receiving or promising to receive money, valuables, or other property gains” constitutes prostitution. The Court ruled that there indeed was a possibility Sung was seeking for a relationship with the businessman and not looking to offer sex in exchange for money – acquitting Sung at the end.

In retrospect, Dr. Baik demonstrated his  expertise regarding the linkage between sex and labour trafficking within the context of the South Korean legal code. Dr. Baik concluded his presentation by remarking that the Korean government’s definition of a “victim” is too narrow, resulting in many injustices. Sex slaves, international migrants, and trafficking victims who should be protected under law have now become criminalized. Overall, Dr. Baik suggested that certain legal terms need to be broadened in order to incorporate more equality into a system that should be protecting the vulnerable. A shift from punishing the “criminals” to better protecting the victims needs to be constituted in South Korea.


Gloria Liu is a second year student studying East Asian Studies and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She currently serves as a copy-editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. She is interested in Mao’s China and particularly experiences of individuals during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

About Gloria Liu 3 Articles
Gloria Liu is a second year student studying East Asian Studies and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She currently serves as a copy-editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. She is interested in Mao’s China and particularly experiences of individuals during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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