Seoul, South Korea – The 1980s was a peak time for Cheongyangni 588, a thriving red-light district in Seoul’s east.
It housed more than 200 shops and 500 sex workers. Historians labelled it the biggest and most popular red-light area in South Korea’s capital.
But on a cold evening, when the wind-chill dropped to around -15C, the contrast was stark.
The area is now a construction site. It was dimly lit. Pedestrians were scarce – passing through to get to their destination rather than venturing out in the area.
All shops, bar one, have shut down. The padlocks on the doors, shattered windows, rubbish bags dumped on the streets and the eerie silence adds to the change – the area went from buzzing and bustling to desolate and barren.
“There used to be so many shops and so many customers. Now, there are hardly any. We open late and close early,” Ann (named changed to protect identity), the sole sex worker in the shop, told Al Jazeera as she continued to look past the windows for any approaching customers.
Ann spoke in broken English, openly sharing her disappointment at the change in circumstances.
The conversation was cut short as she spotted a middle-aged man looking into the shop from across the pavement. He looked around and walked away, much to Ann’s disappointment.
“We got locals, we got foreigners, all sorts of people. Now, as you can see, we just sit and wait.”
The eviction of sex workers here started in 2016. As part of Seoul’s development plans, Cheongyangni 588, is set to make way for residential buildings.
Construction is already under way. The alleyways have given way to deep excavation.
In front of the locked shops, there are broken mirrors and stools, all discarded now. It will not be too long until the last remaining shop in the area is shut down amid development plans.
“Urban development is pushing out red-light districts, which are often located on valuable real estate,” said Jang Se-hee, president of the national sex workers union HanTeo.
“Once the red light districts are gone, housing is usually built. Our workplaces are disappearing all the time. This is all taking place with no dialogue with sex workers, nor any measures to protect us.”
Jang argues that the disappearance of red-light districts is pushing prostitution underground – and online – and making things more dangerous for sex workers.
The eviction is all taking place with no dialogue with sex workers, nor any measures to protect us
In a separate interview last year, one of Jang’s colleagues claimed many shop workers were threatened by thugs who “showed up with iron bars to wreck their workplaces”.
Meanwhile, Hojin Choi, a member of the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) PR team, refused to comment on the demolition and development programme.
He did, however, point to a vigilante programme that was launched in 2013 and offers incentives to those reporting any illegal occurrences.
“Prostitution in Korea is strictly illegal but prostitution agencies and advertising sites linked to illegal sex businesses are surprisingly huge and broad,” said Hojin.
“There are so many flyers on the streets and illegal websites, posts and ads on the internet. That is why the SMG started a civic watchdog programme. Anyone living in Seoul aged 19 and above can join the programme.
“For students, it will transfer their credits and SMG provides incentives such as gift cards in accordance with their performances.”
Miari Texas is another well-known red-light districts in northern Seoul. It is a maze of narrow alleyways off a main road.
An online memoir of a man who worked there provides a unique, almost unheard, account of what goes on in the area.
He also lists shocking details of violent attacks he witnessed during his time at Miari Texas.
His job was to supply brothels with condoms, tissues and other items. Every day, he would spend 12 hours with the sex workers. Majority of those, he said, were women who had dropped out of school or ran away from home.
“I started to get angry whenever anyone shamed sex workers, because they didn’t understand the psychological pain of social exclusion that these women suffered,” he wrote.
“They sold their bodies because they needed a way to live. They were all warm-hearted, full of affection but starving for real affection at the same time.”
‘Lives under threat’
HanTeo and its members echo those comments and feelings. The organisation is angry at the government’s treatment of sex workers in Seoul. Jang argues “despite the negative impression, sex workers are still people who need to find a way to earn a living.”
“Most sex workers are single mothers and women who come from homes with domestic problems. Our lives are under threat and soon we will have nowhere left to go.”
In addition to Miari Texas, a brothel just east of Yongsan Station was wiped out in 2010 for a redevelopment project; Cheonho-dong in eastern Seoul and Youngdeungpo in southwestern Seoul are also fading fast, according to a report in the Korea Times.
Those who work in the industry are upset at the government’s apparent reluctance to listen to them.
“It’s difficult to seek legalisation of prostitution, so we are working for the abolition of the special law on prostitution, and a crackdown on abuses in the sex industry,” said Jang.
“Unfortunately, the government hasn’t allocated single won of its budget allocated to providing any form of support. The Korean government is failing the sex workers.”