S. Korea's first female chief of police tackles prostitution

In a male-dominated society, Kim Kang Ja has inspired a national war on 'underage' prostitution.

Police officer Kim Kang Ja was once locked for hours in a dark room in a brothel. It was a not-so-subtle effort to dissuade Officer Kim from bringing an 'underage' prostitute home to her mother.

Mrs. Kim was not cowed and the family was reunited.

That was seven years ago, and Kim is still confronting angry brothel owners and pimps. But thankful mothers have lavished her with bouquets and phone calls many times over. Since January, when she became Korea's first female police chief, Kim has enlarged her personal crusade, launching a war on underage prostitution. Of Korea's 1.2 million prostitutes, 500,000 are minors, she says.

It's an effort that requires some courage and grit, given Korea's male-dominated society and a deeply entrenched culture of prostitution. Her campaign targets everyone from landlords to security guards aiding in the illegal activity.

Kim's city ward hosts "Texas Miari," a collection of 260 brothels named for the American soldiers who helped popularize the area. Of the 1,500 women working in Texas Miari, 80 percent were under 18, says Kim. But that's already changing: At least 40 of the district's brothels have been closed since Kim took over as chief.

It's everywhere

Prostitution at any age is illegal here, but the problem is so ubiquitous that just tackling prostitution by minors is a major job. This is particularly so because much of it is hidden. Most of Korea's prostitutes also work part time at minor hotels, cafes, barber shops, steam baths, and salons for businessmen. Young girls who date middle-aged men for pocket money are also on the rise. Dates can be arranged online.

What Kim is tackling is the tip of the iceberg, says Byun Wha Soon, a researcher at the Korea Women's Development Institute in Seoul.

The dearth of job opportunities for women in Korea is a factor. According to Dr. Byun, 57 percent of female college graduates found jobs in 1998, compared with 91 percent of men. And while a secretary or store clerk might earn $600 a month, women working as prostitutes in tea rooms or steam baths can earn up to $4,000 a month. The rise in minors becoming involved in prostitution is also attributed to today's materialistic culture. For many girls, "it's hard to buy a brand-name handbag with [a secretary's] wage," says Byun.

Cracking down is complicated by rampant corruption: The brothels frequently pay off the police. Kim says that her campaign would not even be possible if it didn't have the support of the government. "In the past when we tried to deal with it, there was a lot of pressure from upstairs. The owners of brothels amass huge fortunes and had huge influence against powerful people," says Kim.

City effort spreads nationwide

Her crackdown has inspired a 50-day nationwide antiprostitution campaign, and a new law allowing police to publicize the names of people who have used underage prostitutes. The law triples jail terms and fines for pimps, and no longer treats the young girls as criminals.

Police are also stationing more women officers in red-light districts.

"This is a woman's issue and is best handled by a woman," says Commissioner Lee Mu Yong. The police are actively recruiting women for other duties, too. Female riot police are less likely to be attacked by demonstrators, says the commissioner, who is recruiting hundreds more women this year.

Next, Kim hopes to improve rehabilitation facilities for the girls. The halfway houses that teach such skills as hairdressing and computer literacy are underfunded, and some women who have participated in the program say the rules are too restrictive.

Whether Kim's campaign can succeed in the long term is uncertain. Korean businessmen still often entertain clients with prostitutes. Texas Miari "is not active and lively anymore," says one customer. But "that place is so old and thriving and well known," that he doubts it will disappear.

"We cannot eliminate prostitution, but we're trying to get rid of prostitution districts. [It] has a long history," says Kim Yong Su, a police spokesman. But Kim's example is encouraging. As Commissioner Lee notes, the new police chief's name, Kang-ja, means "strong one."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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