South Korea has been rocked by the allegation that Lee Kun-hee, Chairman of South Korea’s all-powerful Samsung Group, paid to have sex with prostitutes at least five times. According to video footage obtained exclusively by Newstapa, an independent news outlet, Lee received women on three occasions at his residence in Samsung-dong, Seoul, and at two other times at an apartment rented by a senior Samsung executive. Each woman appears to have received 5 million KRW (4400 USD) for her service per visit.
Prostitution is illegal but very common in South Korea. Half of South Korean men pay for sex at least once in their lifetime. A 2010 study showed that 37.9 percent of all South Korean men had bought sex the previous year. The higher the level of education, the more experienced with buying sex a man is likely to be. Male prostitutes catering to female clients are also increasing.
That Lee Kun-hee might have paid for sex alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. The problem is that Lee is a public figure with considerable power (and thus is seen as someone who should uphold national standards of morality), and that his company may now be liable for facilitating prostitution (namely by providing an apartment rented by the company executive as a place for the chairman to have paid sex). Many South Koreans are now eager to use the revelation against Samsung, a symbol of inequality and corporate excess according to those on the left side of the political spectrum.
Some commentators have compared the Lee case and a recent spate of corruption scandals in South Korea to the storyline from last year’s movie Inside Men (“Naebujadeul”), which illustrated the cozy relationship among politicians, media, organized crime and business elites also known as chaebol, as well as the not-so-secret use of sex workers by powerful men as routine business. Life imitates art, sometimes nauseously so.
Yet caution should be exercised against making too much of a big deal out of the Lee case. Many South Korean men are cavalier in their attitude toward prostitution; Lee is, after all, just another South Korean man. In the course of dealmaking, they take one another out to “room salons” at night in the name of jeopdae, literally “entertainment.” The first round consists of eating and drinking, but the second round veers toward paid sex. Some male friends simply visit prostitutes as a bonding ritual; they will visit brothels together as a way of cementing male friendship. And some men will summon sex workers home, as Lee evidently did. More common is calling up pimps who provide access to prostitutes who work out of studio apartments in office districts.
Korea Exposé received a submission a while ago from an expat who lives and works in South Korea. His story is a telling reminder of how entwined prostitution is with the lives of many men here, and how accessible paid sex remains despite the implementation of a strict ban a decade ago. It’s all too easy to get indoctrinated even when you arrive here as an outsider.
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The girls wait, standing to attention under a giant TV screen. They remain perfectly still; twelve pairs of eyes scanning the dimly lit room, patiently and silently. Cigarette smoke mixes with pungent perfume and the whiskey is yet to do its job and sedate the awkward scene. One of the girls, small and stunning, briefly makes eye contact with me. Her long straight hair is streaked with copper highlights and her remarkably pretty face is smothered in far too much makeup but it helps to cover the deep dark circles laying siege to her alert eyes. We hold each other’s gaze, briefly, before the spell is broken by the interjection of the ‘madam’. “Which one would you like?” she asks in broken English and waves her right arm over the girls. “They are waiting for you. Choose one. They are all so young and beautiful.”
My love affair with South Korea began in 2010 when I was employed as an unruly cog in the English teaching machine. For a time, my life in Korea was joyous and filled with wonderful episodes, none of which will be documented in this account; but they were essential in shaping the man I’ve become. I left after one year of ‘teaching’, drifted back to Europe, university, secured a master’s degree and desperately sought employment here once again. After a few pitiful months toiling away back home, a job offer came — employment as a writer, in a large public company.
I settled into my job and routine and quickly found a kindred spirit in an older work colleague who took me under his wing and helped with the mundanely essential parts of settling into a new environment. “Call me ‘hyeong,’” he told me one evening while downing soju mixed with beer. “It means older brother.” I already have a whole stable of older brothers but had never taken to someone so quickly and fondly, and so I used the term affectionately both at work and while out on the tear, which was frequent.
One such session inspired the events of this tale. It was an unremarkable Tuesday that ended on a remarkable Wednesday morning. I was all ready to leave when my phone erupted at 5:50PM, my hyeong: “Hey, what are you doing for dinner? Me and the boss are going to a birthday dinner. Do you want to come?” Suffice to say any plans I had were quickly cast aside and the three of us drove to the restaurant.
We arrived, exchanged pleasantries and began slamming the extremely potent and expensive whisky my boss bought for the birthday boy. My hyeong was highly animated and the perfect party guest. He ambled around the large table, sharing drinks and jokes with everyone. By 7:30 he was slurring his words, an hour later he was so hammered he could barely make it outside.
Most of us were sober and, in between expletives and demands for more booze, the party tried ushering him into a taxi. Noticing my night was coming to an end, and having only drunk a meagre amount, l stepped in and said I’d look after him, told them I’d bring him to a GS and feed him water. Pleaded with them to leave us be!
We rolled along the footpath smoking cigarettes, deciding where next to go; I told him he needed to sober up some. “It’s only 9PM,” I told him. “It’s far too early to go home but you’re far too pissed to continue.” I strolled to a nearby park to relieve myself. When I returned he was on the phone. He winked when he saw me, “I’m calling my madam, just sit down there and wait, smoke a cigarette.” ‘Madam,’ I thought, this is going to spell trouble. We bundled into a taxi and sped toward the downtown area. “A noraebang,” he spat over his left shoulder in answer to my question of where we were headed. “Just sit back and relax. I’ll take care of everything.”
Noraebangs in South Korea are as ubiquitous as pubs in any Irish town. You can’t move without seeing the alluring neon lights enticing you to sing a few tunes, forget your troubles and unwind. Most foreigners have frequented noraebangs, drank overpriced beer and soju and sung awful renditions of Bob Dylan and ABBA tunes. I only knew of the standard noraebangs: a dimly lit smoky room available to you and your mates for 20,000 KRW an hour. Afterward you roll out onto the street and leave. End of.
However, there is an alternative noreabang where another commodity besides booze is on offer. Some noraebangs openly advertise ‘doumi’ – literally “helpers” – to entertain you in the course of singing. There are not always obvious signs that the noraebang you see is of this persuasion and it seems that to access and indulge in this hidden world you need one of two things: a male South Korean mate or, as a foreigner, the ability to speak fluent Korean and convince the owner to open up this darker, seedier world.
The cab pulled up to a street lined with noraebangs and restaurants and bars; a blueprint of how most streets look in nearly every city in South Korea. “Where the fuck is it,” asked my puzzled hyeong to no one in particular. “It’s been a while since I was here. I can’t remember the exact building.” He made a swift phone call and a young-looking kid quickly arrived on the scene and led us into the building housing the noraebang.
My hyeong’s disposition changed dramatically once inside, he became coherent and amiable, perhaps sensing what was hidden in darkened rooms and knowing it would soon be available to us. The madam asked for payment upfront- two hundred thousand KRW apiece. He offered his credit card. The madam led us around a wide corner and into a broad, dimly lit room where a platter of fruit and two bottles of whiskey sat neatly on a large glass table. The madam exchanged a few words with my hyeong, quickly departed and returned almost immediately leading a procession of girls.
The girls, a dozen in total, look jaded and uncomfortable, their skinny frames poured into garish tight-fitting dresses. They stood like statues under the muted hue of the large TV screen. I shifted uneasy in my seat, acutely aware of the many eyes on me. I emptied my glass but the whiskey still hadn’t dulled my senses. “Choose one,” said the madam once again. “They are waiting for you.”
My hyeong motioned to a girl at the far end but I already knew the one for me. I slowly made my way toward the girl who met my gaze. “Hello,” I said in my best Korean, “You’re quite lovely.” She smiled slowly and complimented me on my two phrases of Korean. I sighed and cursed under my breath; nagging feelings of guilt and shame crept up on me. My hyeong slapped my back, “Welcome to the real Korea,” he said and pounced on a particularly dejected looking girl with poorly bleached blond hair. The madam ushered the rejected harem out of the room and gave us a knowing smile before closing the door on our sordid affair.
There were many questions I had for my hyeong, still do, but I never broached the subject once we left the noraebang and sobered: is this a common thing in our company? Does he come here often? Does he not feel any regret? But it seems, however, that what occurs whilst pissed shall remain in that place, tucked away in a hazy part of the mind, never to be discussed again. He is married with kids and I, at the time, was in a relationship with a wonderful girl. I could write how ashamed I am of my behavior but that would simply be a lie. I don’t feel any guilt or regret. For me, at the time, I had no regrets and enjoyed every moment of it.
The madam closed the door and left us to enjoy the few hours my hyeong had bought. By the end of our time singing and guzzling whiskey, the two girls exchanged a knowing glance, stood up and motioned for us to follow them to an elevator bound for the third floor. My hyeong disappeared around a corner with his prize while mine led me to a standard bedroom, where she told me to quickly shower and proceeded to take off all her clothes.
She was, is, a glorious-looking creature. Her body was perfectly formed; high firm breasts led to an exquisite face that was framed by large honey-colored eyes, and a bum that could pacify the tension between Palestine and Israel. Luckily, I grow quite melancholic and introspective when drunk so I merely sat on the bed and asked her if she wouldn’t mind dressing and lying down next to me while I slept for an hour or so.
Sometime after passing out her phone hummed and buzzed into life on the bedside table. She answered and quickly departed, leaving me alone in bed with a half smoked lipstick stained cigarette in an ash tray beside me. The TV was tuned to something and someone speaking in a language I couldn’t recognize. I rose, cursed, laced up my shoes and left to emerge into the cruel daylight of a sleepy Wednesday. I checked my phone – 7:15 AM. Welcome to the land of morning calm. Alternative noraebangs are a shadowy decadent underbelly of South Korean society where soju and an hour of sex with a prostitute go hand in hand; both commodities can be bought cheaply and enjoyed frequently.
I know that paying for sex is not unique to South Korea nor is it a new problem here. But when a strong anti-prostitution law and social stigma attached to buying and selling sex seem to do little to make the industry disappear – or make male customers such as my married upstanding citizen hyeong feel any guilt in partaking in the services – I just wonder, is there a point to this sustained fight against prostitution? Or should South Korea admit defeat and follow in the footsteps of nations that are legalizing sex work?
Jack Baer is a European writer based outside of Seoul working for a large South Korean company.