North Korean women get inventive in underground sex industry

Thursday 3rd November, 2016

As their financial situations worsen, 40-year-old North Korean mothers must sell their bodies to return home: an insight into North Korea’s underground sex industry.

North Korea’s informal economy is experiencing a new low, which means more pressure on its women, the backbone of North Korea’s black market.

Like any other place in the world, North Korea has a sex industry. Red-light districts are mainly concentrated around train stations. Most of the women who work there are in their twenties. But prostitution also exists in unconventional forms, away from the red-light districts, dominated by women in their forties, married and with children.

A New Focus correspondent inside North Korea explained through phone, “New systems of prostitution have emerged other than the traditional red-light districts. In the border region train stations, where there are interchanging stops, women from different provinces from groups and offer sexual favours to military officers or passengers in exchange for a small sum of money. After making enough money the women leave for the next province. We call them ‘long-distance prostitutes’.”

The women are typically traders, who have left their home provinces temporarily to sell grains or livestock on the outskirts of the markets, in which they have no stalls. Grains and livestock may be their main commodity, but they also sell sex on the side, approaching any men that they see on the streets. These women need to go back to their families within a short period of time, but have no money to make the long journey home. Due to the desperation of their situation, the prices they charge are much lower than women in the red-light districts who mostly depend on sex work as their first source of income.

How much do these women charge? Just one kilo of rice. It doesn’t seem like much, but the price of rice has shot up in the aftermath of North Hamkyung Province’s devastating floods, which may explain why these women prefer to be paid in food and not cash. Some men who have taken to the new system of sex work carry a small load of rice with them wherever they go, in case a woman may approach them.

“How much, for a quick one?” they would ask. “The price of rice,” the women would answer, without a beat.

Often, the sex industry proves to be more lucrative than grain and livestock, and women who choose this path enter dangerous territory. Long-distance sex workers move in numbers to protect themselves and one another. Most of them carry large backpacks filled with things that they can sell, so that it doesn’t seem too obvious to any police authorities that they are actually prostitutes. Their bags are filled to the brim with cigarettes, alcohol, and snack foods – a selection suited to the male consumer.

Underground sex work can be testified by North Korean refugees now living in South Korea, like Kim, from Wonsan. Kim arrived in South Korea less than a year ago. She says:

“I used to live in rural areas of Gangwon Province. Gangwon Province has a lot of military personnel, more than the other provinces. Where I lived, there were women who shined shoes for military officers for a living. Some women were even specialists, specifically cleaning only army boots. It wasn’t a common profession. Occasionally you would see a woman kneeling down and shining the shoes of a soldier whilst talking in hushed voices. The women wore heavy makeup and gaudy clothing. And the soldiers were never just ordinary military personnel – they were either generals or high-ranked officers. After shining their shoes, the women would follow the soldiers for a village by the military base, where they could be in private.”

Korean women have typically been conservative when it comes to issues pertaining to sex, but where it is a matter of survival, fidelity and moral principle become secondary. Meanwhile, the North Korean government pours money into the further development of its nuclear program, money that could be used towards their own food program. Misaligned priorities are at the heart of North Korean politics and society.

Reporting by Park, Ju-hee.

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