[Special reportage part V] The exploitation of teen runaways

Posted on : 2012-11-12 15:24 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Teen becomes prostitute out of desperation, then finds her situation to be even more hopeless

By Um Ji-won, Park Ah-reum and Jo Ae-jin, staff reporters

Sun-hwa, just fifteen years old, ran away from home because of domestic violence, but she faced another kind of violence once in the streets. She encountered some adults who recruit young girls with promises of high pay and others who paid to beat and abuse her.

The patriarch of the runaway family who forced Sun-hwa into prostitution was a man in his thirties. He claimed that he was a gangster who could protect her and help her get money. Sun-hwa sold her dignity, but never touched any money.

She wasn’t allowed to have any private life. “I never got any money, and I couldn’t go out, so I had no time to spend money.”

Sun-hwa was forced to delete her messenger account. She even had to ask permission to go to the bathroom. “It was like living in a prison.” For five months, she worked as a prostitute. She was often called out to work three times in one day.

Last July, Sun-hwa escaped from a runaway family, but she didn’t want to go back home. Once again, she was alone with nothing to do as a teen runaway. She met a broker, who earned a ten thousand won commission by connecting johns with teen prostitutes. At first, Sun-hwa was intimidated and coerced into prostitution, but at that point, it had become her job.

If there had been no adults who were willing to use Sun-hwa as a sex worker, her situation could have changed, but Sun-hwa felt that she had no other options. There was an abundance of men who wanted to buy sex from teens.

These pimps work in a culture where many men consider it acceptable to use young girls as objects for their sexual fantasies. Sun-hwa was surprised by the people who paid to have sex with her.

“There are many people who look so normal,” she said. Sun-hwa didn’t ask the johns for any personal details. Once she had to deal with a man who said he worked at a big company. Sun-hwa asked him, ‘Why do you do this?’, a question that prostitutes are often asked.

“When he responded that he just likes young kids, I realized those people see us as tools.”

These people considered Sun-hwa a tool and cheated her. They seemed to see her as a fool, often pay the agreed upon amount. Most of them were young men, some of whom offered themselves as sponsors. “I’ll give you 2.3 million won a month,” one said. He was a liar too.

There were many who routinely bought teens’ services. They were accustomed to making deals and negotiating for special services. They didn’t fear the law or any kind of punishment. The number of men who looked for Sun-hwa didn’t decrease, even when the news about sexual violence against teenagers was being reported in the media.

Sun-hwa is still confused. “Am I abnormal for selling my body after running away, or are the men who want to have sex with me abnormal?”

Jung Hye-won, research at the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea, said, “It’s not Sun-hwa, but those men who are abnormal. Teen prostitution is an undeniably criminal act. In foreign countries, prostitution with the consent of a minor is punished as rape. In Korea, there is a lack of both awareness on this issue and judicial measures to punish offenders.”

Jung added, “If the rule of law is enforced in Korea, sex offenders like the men who met Sun-hwa would be punished”.

Sun-hwa still meets men every day. She says, “All the old men are dirty and disgusting.” This disgust and distrust of men extends to her father, who raped Sun-hwa when she was eleven years old. Sun-hwa and other teenaged girls are always vulnerable, in an alley where they sit with their peers or in a motel room on the outskirts of the city.

Every day she still sells her body and finds herself at a loss for what to do. She is afraid of going back to the school she dropped out of a year ago. She definitely doesn’t want to go home, where her brother has a mental disability, her mother suffers from depression, and her father has a history of raping her. She heard that living in a shelter is another form of imprisonment. She hopes that she won’t end up in a brothel like most of the girls who are older than her.

So she lives from hand to mouth each day without any plan for the future. She has a small dream that someday someone will pull her out of misery. She has no idea of who the person might be. She says, “I want to make more money, get plastic surgery and meet a rich man.”


Translated by Yelim Lee, a student at Asia Pacific International School


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