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North Korean authorities try to stop rise in street prostitution in cities

North Korean authorities are scrambling to deter a rapid rise in prostitution in the country’s major cities as a dire economy pushes more women into the sex trade, sources inside the country said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered authorities to act to prevent prostitution from spreading in the reclusive and impoverished nation, a resident of the northeastern city of Chongjin in North Hamgyong province told RFA on Monday.

The Ministry of Social Security and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League, which is the country’s main youth organization under the direct control of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, are moving in cities such as Chongjin and Hamhung to stop young women from selling themselves.

“The crackdown began when a central official in Pyongyang submitted a proposal after he saw some women propositioning men on the street for prostitution at night,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.  

“Kim Jong Un signed onto the proposal of the official and ordered the Social Security Department and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League to take action,” he said.

Though illegal, prostitution is generally tolerated in North Korea, with occasional crackdowns by local authorities looking to extract bribes from those they catch. 

But North Korea’s economic paralysis due to the authoritarian regime’s extreme measures to battle the COVID-19 virus and the effects of ongoing international economic sanctions have left ordinary citizens under extreme financial distress.

The Ministry of Social Security and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League are jointly conducting intensive crackdowns on prostitution and providing ideological education for young people to ensure they adhere to socialist mores, the Chongjin resident said. The two organizations have mobilized day and night patrols to surveil places where the crime occurs, such as train stations and parks.

Additionally, the Socialist Patriotic Youth League is increasing its ideological education for young people in an effort to deter them from selling their bodies for money, the resident said.

On July 30, district-level organizations divided league members into groups and gathered them together for lectures, he said. 

“Kim Jong Un’s message to reject decadent reactionary thought and culture and not get involved in antisocialism was delivered,” the source said.

Also on July 30, the Socialist Patriotic Youth League held a meeting in Chingjin’s Sunam district to publicly criticize several young female prostitutes. 

“The meeting was a form of public shaming, with each of the eight women on the stage revealing their names, ages, home addresses, and their jobs, and forcing them to criticize themselves.

“More than half of the women caught in several intensive crackdowns are reportedly from other regions. It seems that women, whose lives have become difficult due to lockdown measures and movement control for three years, have been forced to engage in prostitution for themselves and their families,” he said. 

Doing anything for money

A resident of the city of Hamhung in the eastern province of South Hamgyong told RFA on Monday that local officials from the Ministry of Social Security and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League were searching train stations, parks and streets for suspected prostitutes.

“About 30 women were arrested on the first day of the crackdown around Hamhung Station, held jointly by the Ministry of Social Security and the Youth League last week,” said the source who declined to be named for safety reasons.

Most of the women were in their 20s, but several were teenagers who were recent high school graduates, she said.

Many women have become prostitutes due to financial hardship, and more and more of them are begging men to pay for sex as they wait for the train at Hamhung Station at night, the woman said. Some men arrange to use the services of prostitutes under the pretext of staying overnight while waiting for a train, she added.

Prostitutes in Hamhung usually are paid 80,000-50,000 won (U.S. $11.40-$21.40) for their services, though some women at the train station get as little as 30,000 won (U.S. $4.30), she said. 

“Even during daylight, I often see women roaming around crowded places like train stations for prostitution,” the second source said.

“Most of the women who go into prostitution are people in need, but there are cases where this is not the case,” the resident said. 

“As our society gradually transforms into a society where anything is possible with money, the interest in earning money is growing,” she added. “I am worried that there is a growing tendency among residents who do not hesitate to do anything for money.”

In August 2020, RFA reported that more than 50 female students of two prominent Pyongyang performing arts colleges were sent to a labor camp for their alleged involvement in a prostitution ring that catered to the capital city’s elites.

Many of the young women were driven into prostitution by poverty brought on by endless demands from their highly selective schools for fees, North Korean sources said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung for RFA Korean. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.