[Special reportage- part I] Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park

Posted on : 2013-04-27 21:57 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
For elderly without safety net, prostitution becomes an economically rational choice
 
 wait for customers near the entrance of Jongmyo Park..
wait for customers near the entrance of Jongmyo Park..

By Heo Seung, staff reporter

At Jongmyo Park, where gray-haired elderly men gather, there are unwritten rules.

The central square of the park is reserved for those killing time by playing baduk(Go). The elderly men spread out more than one hundred go boards and play all day. If you want to talk politics, you have to go to the edge of the park. Those who support the ruling party are given space at the eastern part of the park. Those who support the opposition stay around the southwestern part of the park.

On a sunny afternoon, in accordance with these rules, space for elderly women was along the garden just outside of the park. About six to seven grandmothers who looked around 60 to 70 years old were sitting along the garden near the entrance of the park. They seemed to have put a lot of effort into their makeup and appearance. Around 5 PM when the grandpas were leaving the park, one of the grandmas who had a pearl necklace on with the nickname “Masan” kept on repeating, “Nothing, nothing again today.”

‘Masan’ is one of the so-called ‘Baccus ladies’ who prostitute themselves to elderly men. These grandmas wait for the men outside of the park near the entrance to avoid the Jongmyo Park Groundskeepers who prohibit soliciting.

On this day the grandmas had been sitting along the garden at the park entrance since 1pm. At around 2pm groups of elderly men came toward Jongmyo Park. Two stopped at the entrance to joke with the ladies. One grandma seemed to have been successful and before 2 o’clock, she walked off with a man around her age, towards the back alleys of Jongno. Grandma Kim, 73, from Seoul’s Yaksu neighborhood, said, “There are a number of motels that cost only 5,000 won ($4.60) in the back alleys in this area.”

These grandmas call each other by nicknames, Masan, Yaksudong, Namsan, and Moja, according to where they’re from or their attire. They don’t ask each other about their personal lives. Grandma Moja, with the surname Choi, did not even tell us her age, she just repeated, “Stop asking that kind of question.”

Each woman had her own style for interacting with the elderly men. Grandma Yaksudong would never initiate a conversation with a man. As if it was her last bit of dignity, she primly said, “Grandpas who are passing by give me money and buy me meals. They tell me that I’m not the kind of woman who should be here.” A grandma next to Yaksudong grumbled, “She always says the same thing.”

Grandma Namsan, 72, (surnamed Kim) also never initiated conversation. She tries to avoid conversation because her hearing is bad, even with her hearing aid. But Grandma Masan is used to making jokes with the grandpas who passed by. “Masan has a lot of regulars and makes good money because she has a good sense of humor,” said Yaksudong.

According to a report by Hyehwa Police Office, of the 56 cases of prostitution around Jongmyo Park area, 28 cases involved those in their 60s and 7 cases involved those in their 70s.

“Women in their 40s and 50s mostly work around subway stations” stated an official from Hyehwa Police Office. “Older grandmas work mostly around the park.”

According to Kim Jin-soo, chief of enforcement at Jongmyo Square Management Office, “Prostitution by the elderly has been around for a long time. There have been cases of prostitution where those involved were born in 1928 and 1923. Around 15% of the 200 women working in prostitution in Jongno district are grandmas in their 70s.”

If they are lucky, these elderly women have one customer per day. On most days they have none. “Who likes old women like us?” said grandma Masan. “But aren’t there grandpas who look for you?” the reporter asked. And she answered, “Only because we are cheap.”

In reality grandpas who patronize prostitutes mostly go to the nearby subway station rather than coming to the park. Middle aged ‘Baccus Ladies’ in their 40s to 50s get their first chances at those grandpas getting on and off of the subway. “In a good month, we earn about two million won (US$1,840)” said a lady in her 50s around the subway station.

Thanks to rumors about the chance to make money, ethnic Koreans from China have also started gathering around the station. According to an officer at Hyehwa Police Station, “Over the past three years, there seems to have been an increase in the number of Josunjok women who had suffered injuries while doing hard jobs.”

“Young women charge at least thirty thousand won (US$28), but the grandmas charge twenty thousand won (US$19)” said a grandpa by the surname Cha, 73.

“Old people like me without any money look for grandmas. If a young lady tries, I ignore her, but if a grandma starts talking to me I follow her and pretend I can’t resist.”

“Old people connect easier with other old people,” said grandpa Kim, 75. Kim said he prefers older ladies similar to his age to younger ladies. “We get lonely when we are alone so we want to talk a lot with the ladies. But younger ladies want to finish it quickly and leave” said Kim.

“We have no one to talk to at home. It is good to simply feel warm with someone else. This is our way of having a relationship.”

The elderly men and women who Hankyoreh reporters met at Jongmyo Park called prostitution a ‘relationship’. This is not simply a euphemism for prostitution. In reality, the work of these grandmas is somewhere between ‘business’ and ‘relationship’.

“There are grandpas who ask us to give them a bath in a motel, or to simply lie in bed only holding hands, or take a nap while cuddling,” said grandma Namsan.

 

Translated by Kim Joon-ki, Hankyoreh English intern

 

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

 

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