Pictured above: From left to right, Jubilee Project founders Eddie Lee, Jason Y. Lee and Eric Lu. (Photo by Hannah Gweun)
by REERA YOO | @reeraboo
When a South Korean pastor first asked brothers Eddie and Jason Y. Lee to produce a documentary about prostitution and sex trafficking in Seoul, they were taken aback.
The co-founders of the nonprofit Jubilee Project, known for its socially conscious short films and public service announcements, had previously filmed in the infamous red-light district in Thailand, but for some reason, they couldn’t fathom the idea that there was anything near comparable occurring in their motherland, a country the second-generation Korean Americans had visited many times in the past.
But, after being invited by Onurri Church Pastor Eddie Byun to travel to Korea last February and explore the country with eyes wide open, they ventured into parts of Seoul that took their breath away.
“We came out of a subway [station] and just across the street from a grocery store, we saw these glass windows, similar to the kind you see in Amsterdam,” recounts Jason, during an interview at Jubilee Project’s office in Los Angeles. “There was this moment when I was like, ‘Where am I? This is not Korea. This is not the Korea I know.’ And the most perplexing thing is that right next to these windows, where all these women were behind, there was a police station. I was baffled by not only how [prostitution] could exist so blatantly, but also how authorities could allow it.”
Armed with hidden cameras, the brothers spent about a month during their first trip to Korea going undercover in the three main red-light districts in Seoul, speaking with pimps, johns and sex workers. They returned to the States with some 150 hours of footage.
Save My Seoul, a documentary feature, is the result of over a year’s worth of labor. Slated for a spring 2015 release, the film allows viewers to see a far different side of South Korea—beneath its shiny veneer of catchy K-pop and innovative skin care products and smartphones—as they follow Jason and Eddie in their exploration of Korea’s disturbingly rampant sex trade.
It is Jubilee Project’s first feature-length documentary and most ambitious, in-depth effort to date. Since its founding in 2010, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the nonprofit Jubilee Project has been dedicated to telling stories that inspire change and empower others to take action. The group has partnered with several non-profit organizations in order to create over 100 short films, PSAs and documentaries that call attention to such important issues as bullying, autism and poverty. Their videos, usually between three and 10 minutes long, have garnered a total of about 16 million views on YouTube.
Pastor Byun, who had seen Jubilee Project’s previous shorts, reached out to the Lee brothers because for years he had wanted to make a film about the sex trade industry in Korea. It’s an issue close to his heart: Byun runs the Seoul-based HOPE Be Restored, which provides safe houses for victims of modern day slavery and helps them readjust to society. Last year, he published a book, Justice Awakening, a handbook for Christians who want to help end human trafficking.
“It’s hidden, but once you know what to look for, you’ll realize it’s everywhere,” Byun says in Save My Seoul.
Indeed, what the filmmakers found was that paid sex seems to be available in cafes, barber shops, DVD rooms, karaoke rooms and “juicy bars.” In recent years, Internet chat rooms have made it disturbingly easy for underage girls to sell sex to patrons online.
“There’s a saying in Korea that goes, ‘If you’re a rich man in Korea, then it’s your paradise,’ because you can literally go anywhere and pay for sex if you wanted to,” Jason says. “Even if you’re not looking for red-light district brothels, there are so many businesses that are actually doing sex work behind the scenes.”
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, 5 out of 10 Korean men have admitted to purchasing sex at least once in their lifetime. More alarmingly, the Korean Institute of Criminology estimates that 20 percent of Korean men in their 20s pay for sex at least four times a month.
“Someone described it as an open secret in Korea, where everyone knows, but no one wants to acknowledge it,” Jason says. “It’s almost as though the culture accepts it and turns a blind eye to it.”
Aside from activists, academics and a few government officials, not many were willing to talk on the record to the filmmakers about this so-called open secret, afraid of painting Korea in a negative light. A surprising exception, however, was a head pimp of one of the city’s red-light districts, who casually consented to an interview on camera.
“When you think about the fact that you’re sitting with this man who is running a red-light district that is a series of illegal brothels that enslave hundreds of girls—if not thousands of girls—every night to just have sex and not make any money, it’s a pretty crazy moment,” Jason recalls. “It was really interesting because he said that he believes that he’s helping these girls.”
But what the Lee brothers found after meeting with many of the young women and girls working in the sex industry was that prostitution is often not a choice. “It’s a matter of survival,” he says.
He adds that it’s fairly common for Korean sex workers to enter the industry as teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19. Most of these girls are runaways from broken homes, where they have suffered from physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They fall into the sex trade because of a lack of options for them, Jason says.
The filmmakers also came to the conclusion that Korea’s sex trade is in many ways tied to what they called a “broken Korean culture,” fed by a long, complicated history of females being treated as sexual commodities.
Prostitution in Korea can be traced as far back as the Goryeo Dynasty when kisaeng, or trained artists, were sanctioned by the state to entertain men of the elite landholding classes. While kisaengs were stigmatized by the Confucian idea that a woman’s self-worth is measured by her chastity and adherence to men, their services were in high demand and considered customary.
Then, during the Japanese occupation, thousands of “comfort women,” as they were euphemistically called, were forced into sexual slavery—a grave crime that continues to haunt Korea, as Japanese leaders deny culpability and refuse reparations for the survivors.
Though there were laws banning prostitution from the 1950s through the ’80s, it only grew during the military rule of South Korean President Park Chung-hee. South Korea, at the time, desperately needed foreign currency to rebuild its war-torn economy, and so in 1962, the government designated “camptowns” around U.S. military bases as “special tourism districts,” where prostitution was legal. Camptown prostitutes were even required to register with the government and carry medical certificates to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
It was not until 2004 that a South Korean law banned prostitution entirely. However, despite government crackdowns and arrests, the red-light districts expanded underground and to other businesses. According to the Ministry for Gender Equality, about 500,000 women participate in the Korean sex trade industry, while women’s rights groups, such as the Korean Feminist Association, believe that number could be as high as 1.2 million. If the latter figure is right, then that means that one out of 25 women in the country is selling her body.
“To be honest, there is nowhere that you can access prostitution as easily as in Korea,” says Dr. Sun Young Park, a former criminologist at the Korean Institute of Criminology, in the film’s trailer.
In Save My Seoul, after the filmmakers went undercover to meet some of the girls and women working in the sex industry, they were eventually able to gain their trust and get them to share their stories.
“When we first introduced ourselves, they were making fun of our bad Korean,” recalls Jean Rheem, Save My Seoul’s producer and editor. “They had these really bubbly and bright personalities. I don’t think that’s particularly common for people who came out of that situation, but for these girls, I think it was because they were together with their friends.”
Rheem, who conducted half of the film’s interviews, says that the filmmakers coming from America seemed to help break the ice, as it piqued the girls’ curiosity. The Jubilee team bonded with the girls after sharing some of their Jubilee Project videos on YouTube and promising the girls anonymity.
“In terms of opening up to talk about the actual issue, it took [the girls] some time to really, really trust us,” Rheem says. “But ultimately, we just spent as much time as we could with them. And I think they could see that we came from a genuine place of wanting to really learn and do something about the cause.”
Rheem recalls one girl in particular, identified as “Esther” in the film, who was so brave in sharing her story. At the tender age of 13, she left her abusive home only to find herself in the hands of pimps, who exploited her for two years.
“For victims like her, it’s extremely difficult to reacclimatize to the society due to trauma, and this is especially true in Korea where the stigmatization against sex workers is high,” Rheem explains. “So many survivors choose to guard their past and move on with their lives. However, for Esther, she risked her safety by choosing to trust us with her story, if it meant that she could aid in [preventing] other troubled girls like her from ever experiencing what she had to endure. She believed in the effort, as long as it can help even just one person.”
Jason emphasizes that the goal of the film is not to make Korea look like a terrible country. Instead, he hopes that the film will help people re-evaluate the problematic culture in Korea that condones sex trafficking, and the larger, universal issue of just how we treat other human beings.
“Our purpose of the film is to grow awareness. If we’re able to grow awareness and begin a dialogue about [sex trafficking], then we can at least change some of the perspectives of people not only in the U.S. but also in Korea,” says Jason. “For every girl that we help prevent going into the sex industry, we’re changing their lives and their world.”
As a female activist at the end of the Save My Seoul trailer, says, “If people really knew what’s going on, there’s no way they can ignore it.”
Images courtesy of Jean Rheem/Jubilee Project