South Korea constitutional court upholds strict anti-prostitution law
South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Thursday upheld a strict anti-prostitution law that punishes individual women who trade sex for money.
The legislation, enacted in 2004, carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of three million won ($2,580) for anyone convicted of selling or purchasing sex.
Thursday’s ruling centred on a case brought in 2012 by a then 41-year-old prostitute. She challenged her arrest and 500,000 won fine, arguing that punishing voluntary prostitution, especially when the sex worker has no other means of income, violated her constitutional rights.
However, the court rejected the idea that buying and selling sex could be non-coercive.
“Prostitution is violent and exploitative in its nature, and therefore, cannot be seen as a free transaction,” the judges said in a six-to-three ruling.
The decision sparked angry reactions among sex workers and activists present.
“The establishment has no sympathy for sex workers, driving them to death,” Kang Hyun-Joon, an activist who runs a sex workers association, told journalists.
“Aren’t we part of the Korean people?” sex worker Jang Se-Hee asked tearfully. “They have no consideration for us.”
Prior to the 2004 act, prostitution, while nominally illegal, was largely tolerated in South Korea with officials and police turning a blind eye to thriving red-light districts.
But the law, prompted in part by public outrage over a fire two years earlier that killed 14 young prostitutes trapped in their rooms, specifically criminalised the act of prostitution.
It led to a significant increase in police crackdowns in an apparent effort to eradicate the practice entirely.
Critics say the legislation has had little impact beyond closing red-light districts and driving prostitution underground, where it is harder to monitor for sex-trafficking and abuse.
The court’s decision had been highly anticipated after last year’s ruling to decriminalise adultery — a reflection of changing societal trends in a country where rapid modernisation has frequently clashed with traditionally conservative norms.
During a hearing into the prostitution case, a lawyer representing the Justice Ministry said the 2004 law was about protecting human dignity.
“In order to root out prostitution, criminal punishment is inevitable,” the lawyer said.
“Prostitution has nothing to do with rights to sex or freedom to choose occupations, as it turns human bodies into the objects of commercial deals,” she added.