Bribes and blackmail grow NK's sex industry

Choi Song Min  |  2015-07-30 16:18
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The sex industry in North Korea is becoming more systematic in large cities, as the number of pimps who lure in young workers is on the rise, and Ministry of People's Security [MPS] officials who are tasked with cracking down on sex work are looking the other way, leaving the door open for prostitution around the clock, Daily NK has learned.    

"In Pyongyang and other major cities, more professional prostitution rings that use young women to make money are surfacing," a source in South Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. "People who run these operations bribe everyone from MPS agents to night patrol members under the same unit so they can do business. 

A source in North Hamkyung Province corroborated this story as did a source in an additional province, the name of which Daily NK has redacted for the source's protection.

Prostitution in North Korea is illegal, but in the late '90s when the country was hit by a devastating famine, many women took on sex work to get by. However, more recently, the business has become a money-making industry that is systematic and organized, according to the source. Safety officials who should be curbing sex work are often customers of the service and take bribes in return for overlooking the practice, in effect pushing up the number of operators jumping into the business, he added. 

"In areas like Hamheung, Chongjin, and other large cities, if you go to train stations and areas around the marketplace, you'll easily see older women approaching men and asking if they'd like 'temporary lodging,'" he said. "They usually go up to well-dressed officials who seem to be on business trips or military officials, telling them they have full amenities (code for room and board and women of all ages)."    

Although the price differs by region, mostly for women in their early teens and 20s, it costs roughly 40,000 to 50,000 KPW [5-6 USD], while for those in their 30s, it's about 20,000 to 30,000 KPW [2.5-3.7 USD] The women who direct customers to the facility typically get a 30 percent cut, while the homeowner and sex worker split up the remaining sum. The latter two will for the most part make at least 10,000 KPW [1.2 USD] per case, according to the source. 

"These days since sex businesses receive protection from crackdown agents, the industry has been growing, leading to squabbles over customers," the source said. "With more operations up and running, there are even allotted schedules. During the day, all businesses run together, while at night, the hours are divided into early and late operations.

The businesses that run first are called 'starlight companies' and the late-night operations are referred to as 'moonlight companies." Even with this tacit schedule in place, some places try to sneak in an extra few hours by opening earlier, leading to fights among businesses, he added. 

Party cadres and officials in the judicial system are frequent clients of sex services, and many venture out to places like Pyongyang's Munsuwon and high-end public bathhouses such as 'Eundeokwon' with prostitutes, said the source. In the North, there are baths designated specifically for married couples and can only be used after national IDs are verified. 

"The managers, though, let them use these specific baths despite knowing they're not married because they are cadre, or they enjoy the pleasure of getting tips for offering preferential treatment," he explained.   

In return for getting access to a singles or couples bath, officials pay nearly double or triple the entrance fee of 5,000 KPW [0.61 USD]. By paying extra tips for 'service' to the managers, these clients can put themselves on a special list of 'regulars' and call in ahead of time for reservations, according to the source.   

Also profiting from the business are safety officials, who not only receive bribes for turning a blind eye, they sometimes use pretty women to draw customers into the 'temporary lodging' facility and catch them in the act, he asserted. Then, they blackmail the clients for large sums of money or in some cases, call up for regular bribes. If customers do not comply, the officials report them and use it as an opportunity to add more 'points' and get a leg up at work.

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee

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