A history of sex work in modern Korea

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    In one of the permanent exhibits at the Seoul Museum of History (Soˇul Yo˘ksa Pakmulkwan) kisaeng or traditional courtesans are commemorated as part of the history of modernising Seoul in the twentieth century. Photographs, postcards and costumes of kisaeng from the 1910s and 1920s are displayed alongside pictures of the grand ornamental brothel-restaurants in downtown Seoul where they were employed, such as Myo˘ngwo˘lgwan (House of Moonlight). This beautifully curated exhibition reminds us of the importance of kisaeng to the cultural and economic life of early modern Seoul. Yet, in a Museum devoted to a history of the city, with permanent exhibits on ‘The Culture of Seoul’, ‘People’s Life in Seoul’, and ‘The Development of Seoul City 50 Years After the Korean War’ kisaeng were the only members of the sex industry commemorated. All those whores and hostesses and street-walkers of rapidly industrialising Seoul were nowhere to be seen. In reality, South Korea’s rapid industrialisation from the 1960s to the 1980s was accompanied by a huge informal economy specialising in sex, liquor and male bonding. Towards the end of military rule, in 1989, it was estimated that one in four women were employed in clandestine ‘sex businesses’ (Kim 1998: 109-10, n. 4) While those women are nowhere celebrated or their professional skills admired, recently there has been a fad of kisaeng appreciation in South Korean popular culture. Alongside movies and television dramas, academic and popular history books feed this kisaeng boom. The recuperation of kisaeng as repositories of treasured Korean traditional culture, and of the former ‘comfort women’ as sexual victims of colonialism and war, is a late-twentieth century phenomenon. For much of the century they had pursued a livelihood with the stigma of their labour intact. For over one hundred years the sex industry has been one of the largest employers of women andgirls in Korea. The industry is complex and endlessly inventive: vulnerable to economic crises yet sustained by a ruthless capacity for adaptation and change. This chapter is a history of sex work in modern Korea which begins by examining the first modern brothels of the early twentieth century and ends with an account of the economics of sex work today. Throughout this chapter I use the term Korea to refer to the entire Korean peninsula during the Choso˘n Dynasty (1392-1910), to colonial Korea under Japanese occupation (1910-45), and to South Korea (or the Republic of Korea) from 1945 to the present (on sexuality in North Korea, see Kim in this volume).
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia
    Editors Mark McLelland and Vera Mackie
    Place of PublicationAbingdon and New York
    ISBN (Print)9780415639484
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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