|A broken mirror reflects a prostitute across the street at Cheongnyangni 588. An urban redevelopment project will soon wipe out the red-light district despite protests from the remaining sex workers and other tenants. High-rise residential and commercial buildings will replace the red-light district which opened nearly 80 years ago. / Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul|
Red-light district in Cheongnyangni fading away under redevelopment plan
By Kim Se-jeong
Earlier this month, however, the place was desolate and barren.
Most brothels were dark and empty. Big glass windows were painted with big red Xs and many were broken. Behind one such window were a broken hand mirror, a doll, mascara and an empty water bottle scattered across the floor and on stools once used by sex workers.
Development project driving prostitutes out
The brothel area has long been called just "588," although it is unclear where this name came from. Some historians say it was derived from one of the back alley's address, while others say the area used to have a bus service with that number.
Now the district is counting down its final days.
A redevelopment project will begin later this year — tall luxury buildings will occupy the 41,586 square meters of land — and developers are evicting the women.
The demolition and eviction of the remaining 588 zone will begin next month.
For the prostitutes and pimps but also for other residents there, the eviction, which began late last year, is tough.
Kang Hyun-joon, a senior member of the HanTeo National Union, a sex workers' association, said many were threatened by hired thugs who showed up with iron bars to wreck their workplaces.
Developers also installed surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, as a means of threatening their businesses — prostitution is illegal in Korea and these women can be prosecuted.
Some of the sex worker tenants filed a collective complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against the installment of the cameras, but dropped the case later.
"The demolishers will be back in early March with iron bars to evict them completely," Kang said.
Many sex workers have already left 588 — only 40 work in the remaining eight brothels for now.
It's unclear where the evicted sex workers have gone.
"I heard some went to red-light districts in other parts of the country," Kang said. "Others probably went to find jobs at room salons, karaoke bars and massage parlors."
Kang is a former pimp and said he has friends and former colleagues in the industry.
There are officially 44 red-light districts in Korea, according to government statistics for 2016.
|A platform shoe is abandoned in an empty brothel.|
Resisting eviction notices
The 40 remaining prostitutes carry out protests when they are not working. One place was decorated with a white banner hung from the ceiling, saying: "Developers are pimps and gangsters!"
Some have been joining hands with tenants and small shop owners who don't wish to move out, to hold protest rallies against the redevelopment project in front of the Dongdaemun-gu Office.
The remaining residents will resist the demolition and eviction.
Kang said the sex workers need financial help. "They want support to continue their lives."
He said they didn't receive a penny from the developers, although he acknowledged that because prostitution is illegal the construction firms don't have to give them any money.
But "for these girls," he said, "Cheongnyangni is all they know and where they made a living. It's simply inhumane to evict them like this without any support."
Officials from Dongdaemun-gu Office said the sex workers are eligible to join rehabilitation programs.
And the developers say they have already done enough and will make no further concessions.
"We've paid some money to them on humanitarian grounds," said Lim Byeong-euk, chairman of the group leading the development project. Asked how much compensation had been paid out, he refused to answer.
Under the redevelopment project, they plan to build high-rise residential and commercial buildings by 2020.
The developers received a court order allowing them to demolish and evict the remaining tenants and sex workers beginning next month.
|An excavator demolishes a building as part of the Cheongnyangni 588redevelopment project.|
Stigmatized but historic
Cheongnyangni 588 has a long history. It started during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation after Cheongnyangni Station was built by the Japanese.
The 1950-53 Korean War paved the way for its success as the station transported countless soldiers in and out of Seoul. During that time, soldiers were the main clients.
Its peak was in the 1980s.
The night-time curfew was lifted in 1982. Quality of life began improving during that time — more people began to drive. In 1988, Seoul hosted the Summer Olympic Games.
Cheongnyangni 588 used to have a reputation for the prettiest sex workers in Korea. Before the Olympics, brothels, with the help of the government, began to have glass windows, an idea borrowed from the red-light districts of the Netherlands. It was part of a beautification effort to make the neighborhood look clean and decent for foreign tourists visiting the city.
|Mattress springs are piled in a hole at a demolition site in Cheongnyangni 588.|
More areas falling to money
The anti-prostitution law in 2004 made red-light districts illegal. Police crackdowns began, but some, including Cheongnyangni 588, managed to survive.
However, property and land owners eventually succumbed to development money.
"More and more are disappearing with urban development projects," a Seoul Metropolitan Government official surnamed Won said.
It is a combination between business interest by private developers and the public interest to get rid of them by local governments.
A brothel just east of Yongsan Station was wiped out in 2010 for a redevelopment project led by Samsung. Another at Miari in northern Seoul was turned into a residential area. Cheonho-dong in eastern Seoul and Youngdeungpo in southwestern Seoul, the remaining red-light districts, are also fading fast.
|A man walks by a brothel that is still open in Cheongnyangni 588. Painting on the wall condemns developers that evicted sex workers by force.|
|A man walks past brothels that are now covered up by tarpaulin at Cheongnyangni 588, Jeonnong-dong, Seoul. A redevelopment project will wipe out the red-light district, after developers forcibly evict the remaining sex workers and tenants.|