Cycle of prostitution persists unabated in North Korea

Interior of Bath House No. 1 in Central District, Pyongyang
Interior of Bath House No. 1 in Central District, Pyongyang. Image: KCNA

Considerable efforts by the North Korean authorities to eradicate prostitution have failed to achieve progress largely due to widespread levels of corruption throughout the country. According to sources inside the country, prostitution remains prevalent around saunas, with illegal gambling also taking place.

“People with a lot of money often go to saunas because they can gamble or buy sex. You can do anything as long as you have enough money because saunas are organized into private rooms, double rooms, family rooms and public bath areas,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

Beginning with the opening of Pyongyang’s Ryukyongwon in 2012, which sought to emulate Chinese saunas, similar types of buildings have begun appearing throughout in North Korea. Most saunas are built with private investments that are channeled through a rural convenience service center or convenience cooperative.

“Saunas are not a pure hygiene service business, they are becoming centers of illegal activity. Sinuiju (North Pyongan Province), Pyongsong and Kaechon (South Pyongan Province) are rumored to be the areas where gambling and prostitution are most prevalent,” said the source.

“The cost of a prostitute depends on her age, appearance and services. It usually costs between 1 to 10 dollars, but in Sinuiju, Pyongsong, Rason, Chongjin, Hamhung, and Pyongyang, the cost can go up to 20 dollars.”

Prostitution began to spread rapidly in North Korea with the food shortage crisis of the mid-1990s as women in their 30s and 40s, who were under economic duress, began to engage in sex work. During North Korea’s period of rapid marketization, this may have provided a viable alternative for those who could not adapt to the changes.

The authorities have recognized the extent of prostitution and have been cracking down on it, increasing punishments for the crime, and going as far as publicly executing some of those involved. Indeed, in 2014, Daily NK reported that two males were publicly executed for arranging prostitution in North Korea’s Hyesan city.

However, in reality, public executions are rare. Police officers receive bribes and turn a blind eye or tip off prostitution syndicates before a raid occurs so that they avoid being caught. Even if they are caught, in many cases, they are released after paying bribes.

“If they are caught, the men are sentenced to reeducation and women are sentenced to 3 – 6 months of labor work, but they often avoid the punishments by paying bribes. North Korean residents have doubts about the fairness of the legal system and they don’t think much of law enforcement officials,” explained a source in North Pyongan Province.

North Korea’s penal code Article 249 stipulates that if an individual is caught engaging in prostitution, they will be punished with at least one to five years of labor re-education.

However, many sex workers who are caught do not receive due process and lack alternative options for earning a living, so many of them end up back in the same trade.

“When the police arrest sex workers, the women receive all kinds of humiliation and even the small amount of money that they might have is confiscated. Then they are sent back to their hometowns,” the North Pyongan Province-based source said.

“Those sex workers who do not have any other means of making a living keep wandering around in different areas and try to get back into the trade, but are faced with hardships as territorial conflict arises with others who already work there.”

*Translated by Yongmin Lee