“Korean Dream” tainted by illegal sex trafficking

Each year 4,500 foreigners arrive in South Korea with an entertainment visa and dreams of becoming professional performers. However roughly 70% of females with this visa become victims of sexual abuse and many become a part of sex trafficking and modern slavery.

The notorious E-6 Entertainment Visa allows foreign performers such as singers and dancers as well as athletes come to Korea and work in clubs, hotels and bars.

Tesse Aquino was one such visa holder, a 26-year old single mother who chose to leave the Philippines in pursuit of her dream of becoming a singer. She arrived in Korea at a club near a US army base and began work immediately. She thought she would be a full-time singer at the club but instead her new boss, whom she and her co-workers called “Papa,” forced her into wearing revealing outfits and instructed her to “talk” to customers, encouraging them to spend as much money on drinks as possible.

Aquino and her colleagues worked long 12 hour shifts and endured many unpleasantries throughout this time. They were inappropriately touched without consent by customers and upon complaining to their boss, they were simply told “That’s what everyone has to deal with here.

What is even more unsettling is that if the girls did not reach their weekly 660,000 won quota for drinks sales, they would face a “bar fine” which meant they were forced to engage in sexual activities with customers outside the familiar confines of the club.

I’d just volunteer to touch (the customers) because it was better to touch than being touched,” said Aquino on her experiences of the bar fine.

Abuse has occurred to these visa holders even after escaping the clubs in which they were held captive. Anna Navarro was offered another job by a customer, and after enduring her first “bar fine,” the 23-year old felt she had little to lose. At her current workplace, refusal to engage in sexual acts with customers resulted in the owner threatening to “bury you in the mountains” so it was no surprise Navarro jumped at an opportunity to run away from this life of modern slavery. However, things once again turned sour when the man who was supposedly her savior locked her inside of his home and physically abused her.

All of these women are attempting to file lawsuits against their former boss and the Korean man who initially arranged their trips to South Korea.

Their lawyer, Kim, has said that these women do not receive the help they need because the Korean Immigration Service views them only as foreign criminals rather than victims of sex trafficking and modern slavery. He compares the Korean Immigration Service to its counterpart in the United States and points out how the Korean officers do not use “trafficking indicators” unlike their American counterparts. These indicators are used to identify any potential victims of human trafficking and some of which include:

  • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
  • Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
  • Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
  • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
  • Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?

An estimated 93,700 people are currently trapped in modern slavery and Korea is ranked 49th out of 167 countries on the Global Slavery Index and despite all the trauma she has endured, Aquino says she still hopes to become a singer in Korea.

“What I want is to do what I was originally told to do before coming here, to sing.”

Source: Korean Herald and Department of Homeland Security