Cheongyangni 588: a Clash of Civilizations

An investigative report on the old capital of the red light districts

Narang 2020-04-29

A redevelopment project is under way in Cheongnyangni’s old red light district, a.k.a. Cheongnyangni 588. The construction project in this old neighborhood of Dongdaemun has renamed the district “Cheongnyangni District 4”. Soon, four 65-story residential & commercial complexes, as well as the 42-story Landmark Tower building, will occupy the area.


For decades, there were only rumors of redevelopment, until last July when the project was fast-tracked. One by one, brothel owners shut down their businesses and sex workers had to move out of the area. Demolition has already kicked off in part of the neighborhood.


▲ A redevelopment project has already kicked off in Cheongnyangni 588, the old capital of the red light districts. ©Feminist Journal Ilda

We visited Cheongnyangni 588 last March. The shop windows were broken, and many properties were sprayed with red X-marks. The area looks abandoned. “Prostitution is illegal” signs are everywhere.  In the few brothels that have managed to stay open, the lights are on but only empty chairs fill the voids. Not a soul can be found inside what used to be the capital of Korea’s red light districts, where busy lights shone well into the night.


Nonetheless, not everyone is gone. There are still those who remain in this desolate place.


Sujung: “All I want is to work here until the shop closes down. Please let me.”


Around ten at night, I join the activists of e-loom, an anti-prostitution human rights group. They have been counseling sex workers since 2004. In order to respond to the recent developments, e-loom joined forces with the following organizations: A Coalition for a Solution to Prostitution, Boda (a women’s human rights group), and the counseling group Dasi. Together, they are responding to the issues arising from Cheongnyangni’s redevelopment.


When e-loom conducted a fact-finding mission in the Cheongnyangni sex shop cluster (hereafter just “cluster”) in 2013, around 400 women were working in the district, at various establishments popularly known as ‘glass rooms,' jjok-bang (tiny cells), inns, ‘tearooms,' etc. These days, there are hardly any lights on in those shops.


Four Japanese men, perhaps in their 20s, wander around in front of the glass rooms for a good while. According to e-loom activists, the majority of visitors during the last few years have been tourists from China and Japan or migrant workers from Southeast Asia.


E-loom activists knocked on the door of one of the shops that were still open. They brought multi-vitamins for the sex workers. One activist calls out, “Onni, where are you?” A group of women, dressed up to work the night, come out from the glass room.


“Men are standing in front of the shop. We turned the lights off to drive them away. Because of them, we had no customers yesterday. Again.”


▲ Not everyone is gone. There are still those who remain in this desolate place — sex shop workers.  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

We return a few days later, during the day this time. We met Sujung (pseudonym, 39 years old) who eats, sleeps and works in a glass room business. Sujung’s only wish is to be able to work here safely, just until the day shop closes down. The shop’s owner and the redevelopment team couldn’t reach a suitable agreement for compensation for closing his shop, which is why it is still in operation.


Not far from Sujung’s workplace, bulldozers are tearing down buildings. The air is too smoky to breathe. Sujung says the construction noises keep her from sleeping during the day.


“I barely get by these days,” she remarks. She started working at brothels when she was 21 years old. After going through other clusters, tearooms, and the motel-bari in the Sillim area, Sujung finally settled in Cheongnyangni in 2008 and has been here ever since.  She thinks the working conditions in Cheongnyangni are better than other districts.


“The girls here have been here for five years at least, or even ten years, like me. They’re used to the working conditions here, and because of that, they won’t go elsewhere. The rules in Cheongnyangni are ‘freer,' compared to other places. Sooner or later, Cheongnyangni 588 will be gone anyway. That’s why women here have more freedom, whereas the rules are stricter in other areas. Every month, you only get a few days off. And if you’re late for work, you’ll get fined. Those are just a few examples. Also, the way they split the profit, it’s 50:50 at other places. Here, it's more like 60:40. Plus, there’s also kkalse, an alternative to splitting profits.”


In the kkalse system, sex workers pay a set “rent” of 4 million or 5 million won [3,500-4,350 USD] to shop owners, instead of splitting profits with them. Sex workers operate more like independent contractors, which lets shop owners maintain the appearance of running a legitimate business. Some workers think that they have to pay more under kkalse, or that there’s virtually no difference between it and profit-sharing. Nonetheless, Sujung seems to think that kkalse allows more autonomy.


“Because of this, I am trying to stay here for as long as I can. I know I have to leave in the end, but still...”


▲ With nowhere to go, Sujung says she will stay here for as long as she can.   ©Feminist Journal Ilda

Former shop owners, now ‘redevelopment uncles’: “Prostitution is illegal”


For the last three weeks, Sujung has had no customers, because the redevelopment committee constantly stops customers from seeking her services. The redevelopment committee members include former shop owners who used to run brothels in Cheongnyangni 588.


As redevelopment kicked off, shop owners split into two groups: the redevelopment committee vs. the ‘National Alliance of Squatters and Evictees Cheongnyangni emergency response committee’ (hereafter “response committee”). Those who owned or rented buildings joined the former; those who received little compensation for giving up their business or ran a business at sublet buildings joined the latter.


Some owners took on the task of mitigating conflicts related to compensation, on the side of the redevelopment committee. They are called ‘redevelopment uncles.' Redevelopment uncles tell the sex workers, “There is no compensation for you because your work is illegal.” They have even installed CCTV cameras for ‘security purposes,’ but they’re really a pretext for threatening the sex workers. The uncles say, “If you keep working, we’ll report you to the police.”


Sex workers feel exploited. Shop owners used to profit off of their labor, and are now turning against them. They were once  neck-deep in this illegal trade themselves, ‘selling’ the women, and now threaten them by saying "prostitution is illegal"? What a ridiculous farce, to say the least.


“The redevelopment committee reported us to the police when buyers (customers) came. At times, some of these men weren’t even customers, but if there were any men in sight, they’d immediately go to the police. Every single time. The police started getting irritated too, and told them to stop ‘wrongly notifying’ the police. So now, instead of going to the police, the uncles take turns keeping watch over us. Customers can’t visit us anymore. If buyers approach, they say, ‘We’re calling the police on you, for illegal prostitution’. No conversation can take place whatsoever.”


According to e-loom activists, the redevelopment committee’s police report led to police investigations of two sex workers. One of them was indicted and even went through prosecutory investigation. The buyers in the cases were tourists from China and Taiwan, and so fled the country the next day. The current system punishes only women.


▲ Former shop owners, now ‘redevelopment uncles’ threaten their past employees.  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

Sex workers who are exploited in redevelopment conflicts


As women rose up against the actions of former shop owners and ‘uncles,' their interests seemed to coincide with those of the response committee at times. However, the women mostly tend to be exploited in disputes between the redevelopment committee and the response committee. The response committee members are not exactly on the women's side either.


“Redevelopment took off, and many shops closed down. There was a surplus of sex workers. Now, there’s competition amongst these women. Which is why the remained owners raised the kkalse fee. Their logic is, ‘Can’t pay up? Get out.’ Shop owners mobilized against the women. At the same time, they enlisted sex workers in their fight. They’ll say to the women, ‘When the demolition team comes in, use your bodies to stop them.’ The remaining shop owners are saying they stay open ‘for the girls’. But the truth is, it's just more useful for them to say, 'If we leave, these women have nowhere to go’ than, ‘I won’t leave.’” —Byul, e-loom activist


Initially, Sujung used to join the shop owners at protests.


“I used to go to the protests organized by the response committee. All the time. But then, nothing changed. I felt that the redevelopment committee came down on us even harder because of these protests. The number of police reports increased even more.”


All the 400 women - where are they?


In 2015, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family sent out a directive called ‘Roadmap to prostitution cluster shutdown' to spur local governments to come up with solutions appropriate for their own communities. To that end, each local government organized a task force team dedicated to closing down the clusters. The ministry requested that local governments conduct a joint fact-finding mission and prepare support measures for women who leave the clusters.


For the Cheongnyangni cluster, however, no task force was organized by Dongdaemun District, to which Cheongnyangni belongs. What’s more, neither the city of Seoul nor Dongdaemun prepared a proposal to support the women.


The women ousted from the Cheongnyangni cluster rarely leave their profession. Sujung says, “Many of the women I knew from here now work at glass rooms in the Yeongdeungpo or Chunho clusters.” In many other cases, sex workers who followed their bosses are now in the Dongducheon area, where they continue their trade, according to e-loom.


The sex workers either move to different clusters or involve themselves in other types of sex trade. If the women don’t have debts or happen to have a residence of their own, they can leave the clusters and start part-timing as officetel sex workers or karaoke room ‘helpers’. If they have debts, however, they have no choice but to stay in the clusters.


▲ If clusters are closed without a support system for the sex workers, it doesn’t end prostitution; it only expands poverty.  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

Some women manage to receive a stipend that can help get them out of the clusters, as part of the redevelopment process. Some receive around one million won, and some receive nothing. Those who worked in jjok-bang for a long time with an official jjok-bang address can move into stipend housing, provided by the Korea Land & Housing Corporation. Such cases are extremely limited, however. Only those who were residing in Cheongnyangni District 4 before 1996, the year when the district was announced as an Urban Redevelopment District, can receive legal compensation. Husbands refusing to divorce them, their registered address being elsewhere, or other circumstances prevent women from receiving compensation.


E-loom activists are especially concerned about the livelihood of the jjok-bang sex workers, who are mostly in their sixties or older. If they stop working now, most of them won’t be able to support themselves because of their deteriorating health.


“If these women leave Cheongnyangni, they're left with the worst kinds of sex labor. The most frequent question we get is how they can receive basic living subsidies from the government. They are extremely vulnerable, but they are not qualified for government subsidies because they have children or happen to have some type of private insurance. These women have lived their entire lives without the benefit of any social welfare whatsoever. To have an accurate understanding of their vulnerability, we have to take the nature of sex work into consideration.” —Byul, e-loom activist—


Sujung says that about 15 women are still working in glass rooms in Cheongnyangni 588. E-loom activists say five women are working in jjok-bang. Altogether, they make up the twenty women left in Cheongnyangni, where demolition has already begun.


A few months from now, Cheongnyangni 588 will disappear into history. If we shut down sex shop districts in this manner, can we eradicate the sex trade? Cheongnyangni 588’s redevelopment only reveals the painful reality that, without an adequate support system for sex workers, shutting down the clusters only aggravates poverty and discrimination for these women.


By Narang

Published: April 6, 2017

Translated by Jooyea Lee


-Original article:

기사입력 : 2020-04-29

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