This is a picture that didn't have a chance of getting published. It's not a pretty representation of Seoul, but then, foreigners who already live here know that everything in Seoul or Korea isn't pretty. The picture was actually newsworthy and topical, since I submitted it with a "newspeg" - in the wake of the Korean government's publishing of statistics showing that prostitution made up 4.1% of South Korea's GDP. (The Korean YMCA estimates that the actual number may in fact be higher - at around 5%.) To look at this another way, the industries of forestry, agriculture, and fishing COMBINED add up to 4.4% of the GDP. Put in more concrete terms, the statistic showed that 1.2 million women in South Korea are engaged in sex work right now, which means that anywhere from 1 of 5 to 1 of 10 adult women are presently in the trade. This is positively mindblowing when you consider the number of women over a few decades who might have EVER worked in the industry, especially considering that the role of the sex industry in the economy gets larger as you go back through the decades of the Republic's short, but eventful and problem-fraught history.
And the anecdotal evidence is something most foreigners - especially men - must have noticed very quickly after arriving here. Room salons, "mi-in clubs", 단란주점 (singing and dancing clubs w/ hostesses), massage parlors, saunas, and small hostess bars lining the streets of almost every street in Korea all dominate the landscape - before we even get to the large red-light districts that are in all-but-plain view all over Seoul (and Korea in general). The fact that women's bodies are for sale permeates almost all parts of public spaces. The fact that there are, if the Korean government's own conservative statistics are any indication, more prostitutes in Korea than schoolteachers, should be an arresting realization.
How does this affect men's views towards women in general? How does that relate to the fact that Korea ranks 63rd out of 70 countries measured in the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which is calculated based on the number of women in actual positions of economic or political power? Just to give this statistic some context, the US is ranked 10th, Japan is ranked 44th, Thailand 55th, Russia 57th, and Pakistan 58th. The only other countries that actually managed to score behind Korea were all places in which women's inequality is overtly and sometimes even brutally enforced; in ascending order of GEM rank: Cambodia, where domestic violence is not even legally a criminal offense, starts the slide down at 64th. The United Arab Emirates, where a man can still legally take up to four wives, is next, and Turkey, where "honor killings" of women who have had the audacity to be a victim of rape are still often murdered by male relatives, takes 66th place. Sri Lanka follows, with Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen bringing up the rear, last out of of the countries measured.
Sure, statistics can be misused, but they also provide a useful baseline of comparison, when placed in proper historical context. Another qualification: I am deadly sure that all of the people who would point to some flaw in the way the statistics were made would be the first to wear the rankings with pride were they to paint a flattering picture. If Korea ranks as the #1 country in the world in terms of broadband penetration, it's front-page news; if it is something like holding the dubious honor of approaching the 3rd-highest divorce rate in the world - right behind the US - the statistics must be flawed, or else the causes attributable to the ever-convenient aftermath of that foreign power-created IMF crisis.
So yes, there are more women working nowadays, but are there appreciably more who are actually making key societal decisions? Does the fact that Korea has one of the highest rates of state-supported and protected systems of prosititution in the industrialized world have NOTHING to do with the fact that it ranks nearly the lowest in gender empowerment within that same group of countries?
It's hard to step outside of your own Matrix. Americans have trouble with certain issues that are cogent to our own particular realities, such as the racist stratification of our educational system, our nation's bloody and imperialist foreign policy, or an irrational fear of "socialism" that prevents the richest country in the world from having any semblance of a national health care system. But across the Pacific, I think the hardest thing for Koreans to realize is just how unusually pervasive is the use of women's bodies in the economy. Koreans who view this picture often defensively point out that prostitution exists everywhere, which is true. But we're talking about a matter of 1) scale, and 2) state validation and support of the industry. When it is statistically more likely for a woman to become a prostitute than a lawyer, doctor, or even a schoolteacher - I think the problem is particularly acute. America, my own nation of origin, has its own particular problems; but in terms of scale and character, the problematic link between sex work and women's place in society is one peculiarly germane to Korea.