[Special reportage - Part I] Runaways flee abuse at home, end up in prostitution

Posted on : 2012-09-19 15:22 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
An estimated 200,000 young people live on the streets of Seoul, vulnerable to violence and disease

By Um Ji-won, Park A-reum and Heo Seung, staff reporters

Last year, more than 20,000 young people ran away from home. That total only represents the cases that were reported to police. As of now, an estimated 200,000 adolescents are living on the streets around the country. Over 60% of the runaways are girls, children who have fled poverty and abuse at home. Roughly half of these girls are believed to be surviving on the streets through prostitution. For all the shock the South Korean public shows when confronted with sex crimes, it turns a blind eye to the kind of sexual exploitation that disadvantaged teenage girls are exposed to on a daily basis.
Early this month, Hankyoreh reporters spent two weeks talking to these girls on the street. In their eyes, sexual predators are not psychopaths in electronic ankle bracelets. All of us are in some way complicit in the sexual violence they endure.

It is eight in the morning on Sept. 11 and A-yeong has no money in her pocket. She shook awake her friends Ji-min and Hye-ri. All three girls are fourteen. The two friends had nodded off while hunched in a chilly stairwell, and it took a moment for them to open their eyes.

“Get up!” A-yeong shouted. “We’ve been robbed.”

Ji-min’s eyes flew open. “What? All of it?”

There was no sign of Jin-seok, the 15-year-old boy who’d slept close by them the night before. Hye-ri’s face fell.

They’d met him the night before at an internet cafe in Seoul’s Eunpyeong district. They had put up the message on an online bulletin board while huddling together there. It read, “Looking for fellow runaway in Seoul/Eunpyeong/14 y.o.” They were in no mood for their usual wandering that night, but they had no money and hadn’t eaten anything that day. After a brief exchange of messages with the girls, Jin-seok came right over to the cafe.

He and the girls decided to arrange a “job.” Having experienced several flights from home, the girls had learned one of the laws of living on the street: they would need a man’s “protection” to do this kind of work. They put up a bulletin board question reading, “Anyone want to meet up with a 20-year-old woman?” It got dozens of replies.

The one they finally settled on was so ordinary they wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup today. He said he was 28. He didn’t ask her age. For all her thick eyeliner and hair dye, pale-faced A-yeong was very obviously a teenager. He led the way to the motel.

“They all know that I’m underage.” she said later. “They still do it.”

“They worry too,” she added. “Not about doing it with a minor, though. It’s more like, ‘It must be painful.’”

While he was washing up, she rifled through his pants pockets. She found 100,000 won (about US$89). She hurried down to her friends, who were waiting below the motel, and they took off.

It was a common trick: advertising for a job, then taking off with the money before any act had taken place. They even had their own shorthand term for it. It was something A-yeong had learned from an older boy on the street. She needed money to eat, but she also wanted to avoid “jobs” as much as possible, so the method was a crucial means of survival. And now Jin-seok had made off with all of it.

There isn’t much a 14-year-old runaway girl can do to earn money. A-yeong followed along with older boys and girls who said they’d give her “somewhere to sleep.” Being sexual assaulted by one of these boys was her first sexual experience.

She seemed to have a tough time recalling her experiences, perhaps because there had been so many of them. She couldn’t say, for example, how old she was when her mother left home for another man, or what grade she was in when she transferred between Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces and Seoul. One thing she does remember clearly, though: she first ran away from home in the fall of seventh grade last year. She hated her father, who beat her frequently. It became a repeated occurrence: coming back home and running away again.

Her friend Ji-min first ran away as a third grader. She was sick of being abused by her mother. As early as kindergarten, her mother beat her with her fists and kicked her. The day she first ran away, she was beaten until five bamboo poles had been broken. Only later did she learn that her abuser was actually her stepmother.

After running away, Ji-min asked to be allowed to sleep at a nearby church. The next day, she fell asleep in a neighborhood parking lot. If anyone saw the tiny girl sleeping there, they didn’t try to wake her up or report the incident.

The latest came in August. She’d run away many times before, but things were a bit different this time. On August 25, Ji-min was sexually assaulted. She had met a man from an online bulletin board who said he’d give her “somewhere to sleep.” The experience was traumatic. After experiencing a burning sensation in her pubic area, she went a hospital and was told she’d contracted a venereal disease. But she didn’t go home again, nor did she report it the police.

All of the girls agreed: “If it isn’t any worse than it was at home, then it’s good enough.”

A-yeong and Ji-min hate doing jobs. They take the money and run beforehand. If worse comes to worst, they put in part-time work at a “kissing room.” Some of the older girls had told them about it: if they could put up with the groping for just 30 minutes, they could walk away with an easy 50,000 won (about $45). Right now, Hye-ri is the only one of the three who makes money turning tricks.

She didn’t start out by choice. She was bullied into it by older boys from her “family.” The family is a group of runaways who board together. The boys told her she would have to earn her keep somehow. “Make some money or we’re all going to starve,” they said.

Once she started working, they got softer in their approach. They would say, “Hye-ri! We’ve got a job for you. A hundred fifty (thousand won) for one. Do what they ask you to do, and throw in a little something extra. Got it?” Without them, she would have had no one else in the world to rely on, so they did as they asked.

One memory stands out as particularly painful. In July, she became pregnant by her boyfriend, a boy around the same age. She held the hands of her mother and aunt as she went to the hospital for the abortion. She told her closest friend about it, and soon word was going around the school that she was a “slut.” Her parents were at each other’s throats, demanding a divorce. Hye-ri used a box cutter to slash her wrist.


The names of those interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identity


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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