Korea branch mulling Amnesty Int’l’s recent decision on sex work decriminalization

Posted on : 2015-08-17 17:30 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
After vote from Amnesty headquarters, local advocates instead calling for tougher punishment for pimps and johns
 staff photographer)  
staff photographer)  

South Korean human rights groups appear poised for a major debate over the issue of prostitution after Amnesty International voted at a recent meeting to recommend countries to develop decriminalization policies as a measure to protect the rights of sex workers.

“We were frankly taken a bit aback, and we’re figuring out now how to process the decision by headquarters,” said the group’s South Korea chapter following the vote at a recent International Council Meeting in Dublin, Ireland.

Meanwhile, local women‘s right groups sent a message of clear opposition, arguing that stronger punishments for prostitution clients and businesses should be a bigger priority.

Local chapters of Amnesty International are not allowed to differ in position from decisions made by headquarters. The group previously announced on Aug. 11 that its decision to recommend decriminalization came after its own two-year-long investigation of sex work conditions around the world and discussions with members at its dozens of chapters. It did not reveal which of the more than 60 country representatives who attended the meeting voted for or against.

While no information was given on which vote the South Korean chapter cast, it is now obliged to follow along with the final decision.

“Decriminalizing sex work is a completely different thing from ‘legalizing’ it,” said Amnesty International Korea director Kim Hee-jin on Aug. 16.

The argument is that the legalization process could lead to different forms of prostitution systems aimed at skirting the law.

“The situation is different for every country, and the chapters are doing a lot of soul-searching to figure out how to accept and process the position from headquarters,” Kim said.

Amnesty International Korea reportedly received dozens of protest calls from members, some of whom quit, after the decriminalization decision.

Amnesty International’s typical approach is to hold simultaneous global campaigns on major human rights issues, with each of them requiring roughly two years of preparation time.

“As of now, we have no plans to take action for the sex work decriminalization campaign in addition to our current campaigns on the National Security Law, freedom of expression, conscientious objection to military service, and migrant worker issues,” Kim said.

With Amnesty International currently planning to discuss the issue at its international conference in October before deciding on a final policy sometime around January, many are prediction the South Korean chapter could be in for a human rights debate with local women’s rights groups next year.

“Amnesty International’s decision is based in very naive thinking,” said Jeong Mi-rye, co-president of the advocacy group National Solidarity for Resolving the Problem of Prostitution.

“Instead of decriminalizing prostitution, we should be stepping up our punishments of prostitution clients and brokers,” Jeong advised.

Korean Women‘s Association United secretary-general Park Cha Ok-gyeong said her group “views the act of prostitution as a crime.”

“Amnesty International seems to have a different philosophy with regard to prostitution,” she added.

Amnesty International Korea previously delivered a report to headquarters noting women’s rights groups‘ concerns about decriminalization, the country’s Special Law on Punishment of Prostitution, and the progress of a current Constitutional Court trial on the law’s constitutionality.


By Kim Kyu-nam, staff reporter


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