On March 7, 2009, the actress Jang Ja-yeon was found hanging on a stairway bannister by her older sister. The apparent suicide of the actress that was just starting to get her name recognized after her role in the hit drama series, Boys Over Flowers, hit hard, not just to her fans, but to the general public as well. In a way, it reflected the high suicide rates Korea is known for – here was another young actress who killed herself for reasons unknown.
And then her suicide letters became public. In these letters, she told a tale that had awoken the fury of the Korean public. In her letter, where she identifies herself as a “weak and powerless actress” who wants to “escape from all this pain,” she listed eleven prominent individuals, one of whom was the producer of Boys Over Flowers. She goes into detail, claiming that she was forced to sexually entertain these men over 110 times, and accused them of sexual coercion, rape, and battery.
In the months and years that followed her death, the eleven names somehow became 31 in a list passed around the internet, news stories became inaccurate as the truth became increasingly blurred, contradictory stories from just about everyone involved, allegations of computer hacking, and government interference was rampant.
But one fact continues to be held true – Jang Ja-yeon was forced into sexual acts with these influential people, and was forced into these sponsorship relations by her manager. Of those named in her letter, only her manager and CEO were sentenced to jail for two years. As for the men named? They were all cleared.
Sponsorship is the dirty, barely kept secret of the Korean entertainment industry. Every entertainment industry has some form of the casting couch, yes, but there are few that come close to the systematic way that it is present in South Korea. It is not only present, but it is easily available, with organizations and ‘clubs’ dedicated to using low ranked and rookie celebrities and delivering them to wealthy and important men. These men would then sponsor the celebrity, giving her designer and expensive stuff, and would help her get roles and commercials, in return for one little thing — sex.
If this is the case, isn’t this essentially prostitution? That’s a common question. After all, prostitution is illegal and engaging in prostitution and paying for prostitution is considered a criminal act. Why aren’t there police investigations and why aren’t they arrested?
Simple answer: the individuals all have powerful positions and/or can buy the police investigator. More complicated answer? Prostitution, no matter what you choose to call it, is rampant and prevalent in South Korea. If you know what you’re looking for, you can assuredly buy yourself a blowjob in your local noraebang or a ‘massage’ in a barber shop.
It is systematic, it is rampant and it is constantly overlooked. This has been the case since, well, before South Korea was even the Republic of Korea. Hell, to even get to the start of why sponsorships is so prominent, we have to go all the way back to the kisaengs.
A Short History of Korea’s Prostitution Culture
Before anything else, not all kisaengs would engage in sexual acts with their patrons. Kisaengs were trained in the traditional arts, and some even feature as heroines in ancient Korean tales. Some became medics for the female members of the royal family. Because of their extensive training, kisaengs were among the most educated females in the society. This was because women were taught to be chaste and unsullied – and not just in virtue. Educated women were also looked down upon. Nobody wanted a wife who could speak her mind. They preferred them meek, innocent, and chaste.
Don’t those characteristics sound oddly familiar?
So, these kisaengs, in contradiction to their low status, ended up being more educated than the women their patrons were married to. That they also had sex at the right price with the right person in a powerful position was just another role they played in this game that society set upon them. A kisaeng who refused to perform a sexual act that was already paid for would be seen as disgraceful. Most kisaengs come from the lower ranks of society, and were treated as entertainment slaves. Most were either born into it, with mothers who were also kisaengs, or sold into the training by poor families.
Similar to sponsorships, kisaengs would also have a patron of prominent position who would take care of her. The Joseon dynasty additionally set up a three tiered hierarchy for the women. The highest position the kisaeng could reach was the royal bedchamber of the king. This continued for almost the whole 400 plus years of the Joseon dynasty.
This all ended when the Japanese occupied Korea in 1910, and forced an inconceivable number of women into servicing the Japanese military. Fast forward to the end of World War II and the Americans had set up base in parts of Korea. According to Maynes:
“It is estimated that at least 250,000 women became military prostitutes… Korean businessmen and pimps opened dance halls and brothels close to military bases, and both Seoul and Incheon had dance halls with 250 prostitutes each.”
And as for the response of the Korean government? They shelled out the money to facilitate the prostitution near the military bases. After all, just the unorganized business near the military camps accounted for nearly 25% of South Korea’s GNP. It was also during this time that ‘Hooker Hill‘ in Itaewon came to be.
In the decades that Korea had a struggling economy, prostitution kept them afloat. In the 1960s, the Korean government created legally recognized ‘special districts’ that catered to businesses for American troops.
When the economy started gaining in growth, Koreans suddenly had more disposable incomes, and men found that they could pay to have sex. At that time, women were still expected to keep the innocent, meek and chaste image that was imposed on them. Korean males could hardly expect to find a woman willing to have sex with them because that would taint the women for their future marriage prospects. For the married, they did not wish to ruin their wives’ lives with their sexual libido, because, according to how they were raised, women weren’t supposed to have libidos that could keep up with theirs. Of course.
So instead, they turned to prostitutes.
As the demand for prostitutes increased, so did the various establishments. In time, the high end salons would come to existence, catering to high paying clients.
Prostitution Is Illegal, But Sponsorships Aren’t
In 2000, it was estimated that 20% of women between the ages 15 and 29 had jobs that included sex. This was because the pay was double of what women would make in normal jobs. With a good percentage coming from the country areas to Seoul to find work that would give them money to send back to their homes, the normal pay was too low.
Various international human rights groups became horrified at the amount of abuse that the women were put through. From rape, to being beaten, to forced sexual labor, and to the massive amounts of human trafficking organizations that had made South Korea as their base of operations, the horror stories were countless.
Prostitution was made illegal in 2004. Despite this, the business continues to boom, and in fact, has become a company outing for businesses. In 2013, it was estimated that $1 billion was spent on corporate cards on sexual services. According to Shin Sang-ah, a consultant at the Seoul Women’s Workers Association:
“There is definitely a discriminatory and exclusionary element at play in that kind of sexual corporate entertainment culture. Wining and dining clients or other forms of similar corporate entertainment generally involve male higher-ups in the corporate hierarchy. And this goes hand in hand with the fact that Korean women are generally confined to less important roles within social organizations.”
According to the government-run Korean Institute of Criminology, the sex trade accounted for almost $20 billion, or roughly 4% of South Korea’s GDP in 2013. They noted that 20% of men visited brothels for sex at least four times a month. Despite the fact that it is illegal, police crackdowns are rare, and some warn the businesses beforehand.
If you know what you’re looking for, you can instantly spot the businesses that employ females who are there to cater to your sexual needs. There are the barber shops where you can get a handjob and noraebangs (as opposed to legit, sing-your-heart-out, karaoke rooms) which are situated near motels for a reason. Then, of course, everyone remembers the Se7en controversy when he was found going into a massage parlor.
Then, there is the highest level, the tenpro, which roughly means ‘ten percent.’ These are the supposedly top ten percent women in the industry. They are the most beautiful, have the best bodies, best personalities, and cost the most. It is in tenpros that wealthy businessmen get their private pleasure.
It is also in tenpros where you can find “failed celebrities,” rookie actresses, idols and models, or those aspiring to get into the entertainment industry — all who serve the rich and powerful of South Korea. Some, if not, most, of these clubs require an invitation to get in. It is highly regulated, so that the privacy of the wealthy men and the potential celebrity is kept secret.
This is where the vicious cycle of celebrity sponsorship starts. In 2010, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea conducted a survey of 111 actresses and 240 aspiring actresses. Two-thirds responded that they were told to have sex with a prominent figure who would then give her an advantage. Half reported that they were put at a disadvantage if they declined, and the other half had gained assistance when they complied.
Sponsors Can Make Everything Go Away… Even Police Investigations
In the last few weeks, there has been a furor about these sponsorship relations thanks partially to a recent episode on a television show. It went on to detail about the nature of the sponsorships, and how even from the very start, when one becomes a trainee, women are told to sell their bodies to a sponsor. They were held on a tight leash, and told that when the sponsor asks for her, she has to go, whether it be day or night.
In a SBS show, another trainee said that if she wasn’t able to take her clothes off, then that would mean the company didn’t trust her enough to invest in her future. There was also a recent case where an ex female idol was sentenced to one year of jailtime for allowing her sponsor to beat her boyfriend for four hours. The sponsor was sentenced to three years in prison.
And it is not just the rookies and aspiring who enter into these sponsorship contracts. Top actresses and idols also enter into sponsorship relationships. Sometimes, it is a continuation of a sponsorship from prior to their fame, or it is a new one to keep quiet about their old sponsorship. Then there are times when they do it to fuel their lifestyle, keep getting roles and CF deals, or to pay off debts.
Then there was the case of TAHITI‘s Jisoo. On an Instagram post, she posted pictures of a broker trying to contact her to enter into a sponsorship contract. The broker then went on to add that she would be paid one million won each time, and the last message raising it to 4 million won. She soon filed a lawsuit. However, just this week, it was reported that the investigation was likely to end with no clear culprit.
Like Jang Ja-yeon’s case, Jisoo’s case is also likely to close and go unfinished.
Again, why is it so hard for these cases to properly close? This is because it is pervasive in the Korean society. They criminalize prostitution, then turn a blind eye because of how much it brings to the economy and because they have been raised in a culture where prostitution has, in one form or another, been present.
And when a case such as Jisoo or Jang Ja-yeon becomes public? Because they are celebrities, it is more likely than not that powerful individuals are behind it. It could be someone influential in the entertainment industry, or it could be someone involved in politics. Or, it could be someone who is in the higher ranks of a huge company. It has been noted time and time again that the reason that the South Korean economy is so robust is because of the huge conglomerates such as LG and Samsung.
These individuals, simply put, have the power to pick up a phone, call a higher up in the police station, and have the whole investigation shut down.
It seems highly unlikely that the cycle will ever break, given the deep rooted history of prostitution in South Korea.
(Al Jazeera, Politico, Global Post, The Seoul Times, International New York Times, Three Wise Monkeys, International Business Times, WordPress, Human Rights Watch , Amnesty International Submission to UN Human Rights Council: South Korea, Vice, Korea Herald, Maynes, Katrina (2012) “Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido; From Kisaengs to the Twenty First Century” Grand Valley Journal of History, Chosun Ilbo , Sports Chosun, Nate ; Images , Getty Images, Instagram, SBS)