Photos of Elementary-School Girls Smoking Go Viral

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Image source: Naver News.

When I see pictures of Korean girls smoking, my heart gets racing.

No, it’s not a fetish of mine, although I’ll admit that some image searches for this post did indeed produce some interesting results. Rather, it’s because ever since I wrote my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series, best summed up in my Busan Haps article here, I’ve been keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the increasing female smoking rate in the media. Especially of any news that the government has finally acknowledged the problem, instead of simply ignoring anything that would overshadow its successes with the male smoking rate.

Alas, once I actually translated this March 5 Financial News report, I realized that it has neither, although it does end with getting the news out there that the teenage smoking rate is increasing at least (although it’s actually quite misguided not to break rates down by sex and age). Also, the story only mentions pictures of two girls, but pictures of the above girls with two more companions are also readily available on the internet (in fairness, this may not have been true when the article was written). As most of those pictures are either poorly pixelated or not at all though, making all their identities obvious, I’ve chosen not to post or link to them here.

“담배 피는 ‘요즘 초등생’ 도를 넘었다” / “Even Elementary-School Students Are Smoking These days? That’s Too Much!”

성인 흡연은 매년 줄고 있는 데 비해 청소년 흡연은 매년 증가하는 가운데 한 흡연카페에서 최근 초등학생이 흡연하는 사진이 인터넷에 올려져 충격을 주고 있다. 이 사진을 본 네티즌과 학부모들은 “학생들의 흡연이 도를 넘었다”며 당국에서 나서야 한다고 주장하고 있다.

While the adult smoking rate is decreasing each year, the teenage smoking rate is increasing. And in the midst of this, pictures of elementary school students smoking at a cafe uploaded to the internet have proven shocking. Netizens and parents that have seen these pictures say that “the fact that students are smoking is just too much,” and that the government should do something about it.

5일 유명 포털사이트와 개인 홈페이지, 학부모 등에 따르면 지난달 24일 초등학생으로 보이는 어린이 2명이 인천의 한 흡연카페에서 담배를 피우는 장면이 촬영돼 인터넷을 통해 유포되고 있다.

On the 5th of March, a February 24 picture of what appear to be two elementary school girls smoking at a cafe in Incheon rapidly began spreading on famous portal sites, personal homepages, and among parents.

‘요즘 초등생’이라는 제목으로 유포되고 있는 이 사진은 지난 3일까지 8000여명이 홈페이지 하단의 ‘공감’란에 클릭했지만 그후 이날 오전 현재까지 클릭 수가 2만6000명을 넘어서는 등 문제점을 지적하는 네티즌이 급속히 늘고 있다.

With the title “Elementary School Students These Days”, by the 3rd of March roughly 8000 netizens had seen the picture on the [original?] homepage and clicked on the “I agree/empathize” button, but this had quickly increased to 26,000 by this morning, many of whom were also leaving comment discussing the problems [of students smoking].

(James—I don’t know if this means 26,000 people had visited the one site, or if they’d shared the original post and/or image(s) on their own homepages à la Tumblr)

학부모 오모씨(49)는 “청소년(학생)의 흡연은 어제오늘 문제가 아니지만 초등학생으로 보이는 어린 여학생들이 버젓이 담배를 피우고 있는 모습을 실제 사진을 통해 확인하니 어이가 없다”며 “담배를 구입하는 과정에서 하급생이나 동급생을 괴롭힐 것이고, 이로 인해 상당수 학생이 피해를 보고 있다고 생각하니 답답하기만 하다”고 말했다.

O-mo (49), a parent, said “Teenagers smoking isn’t just suddenly a problem that arose yesterday and today. But still: I was really taken aback by the pictures of elementary school students so brazenly smoking like that”, and that “they probably bully and harass their peers or younger students in other classes to buy the cigarettes for them. I feel frustrated thinking about how those bullied students must be suffering.”

다른 학부모 최모씨(43.여)는 “사진 배경을 보니 집이 아닌 듯하다. 어린 학생들이 담배를 피우고 있으면 가게 주인이 제재해야 하는데 영업을 위해 이를 방관하고 있는 것 같다”며 “철없는 아이들의 일탈을 장사를 위해 방관하는 어른들의 무관심이 더 나쁘다”고 주장했다. 최씨는 “과연 자신의 어린 자녀가 담배를 피우고 있어도 수수방관하겠냐”고 반문했다.

Choi-mo, a mother (43) said “You can see from the background of the picture that it wasn’t taken in someone’s home. It was in a cafe, which meant that the owner, an adult, didn’t stop the students and instead just looked on in order to make money.  That’s much worse than what the students themselves were doing”, and that “would he or she sit by and nothing if it was their own children that were going off the rails like that?”.

이들뿐 아니라 상당수 청소년과 어린이가 흡연카페 등지에서 흡연하고 있으며 편의점 등 앞에서 성인들에게 돈을 구걸(앵벌)하고 남의 주민등록증으로 자동판매기에서 담배를 구입하는 사례도 비일비재하다는 것이다. 또 일부 청소년은 500~1000원의 웃돈을 받고 흡연 학생들에게 담배를 재판매하고 있으며 선배들의 심부름에 담배를 구입하지 못한 후배들은 폭행까지 당하는 것으로 알려졌다.

This is not an isolated case, but a frequent occurrence. Also, teenagers will hang out outside convenience stores begging for money from adults going in or out [James—don’t they also ask adults to buy cigarettes for them?], or using other people’s national ID numbers to buy them from vending machines. Also, it is common for some students to sell cigarettes at a mark-up of 500-1000 won to other students, or for seniors to force juniors to obtain cigarettes for them, physically abusing them if they don’t.

와 관련, 한국금연연구소 관계자는 “흡연은 발암 및 위해 물질이 몸속으로 침투하기 때문에 세포나 유전자에 악영향을 줘 성장기 청소년의 성장.행동발달 장애 등의 원인이 된다”며 “성인 흡연보다 오히려 청소년 흡연을 근절하기 위한 정부의 특별한 노력이 요구된다”고 전했다.

Regarding this, a spokesperson for the Korean Anti-Smoking Laboratory [James—A Daum internet “cafe,” not an official organization] said “Smoking allows carcinogenic substances to invade the body. These have a negative effect on cells and genes, and when this happens during teens’ crucial growing period it can harm their growth and lead to behavioral problems,” and that “it is not adult smoking but teenage smoking that the government needs to take stronger measures to eradicate.”

한편 질병관리본부가 지난해 실시한 ‘청소년 건강행태 온라인 조사’ 결과에 따르면 지난해 청소년 흡연율은 12.1%에 달했다. 다른 기관이 실시한 조사에서는 2008년 기준 청소년 흡연율이 1992년에 비해 3배 이상 늘어난 것으로 조사되는 등 청소년 및 어린이 흡연이 갈수록 늘고 있다.

Last year, the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted an “Teenager Health Situation Online Survey”, which found that 12.1% of teenagers smoked. In 2008, a different organization found that the teenage rate was over 3 times the 1992 rate. As time goes on, the teenage smoking rate just gets higher and higher.

(Reporter: Park In-ok/박인옥)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

“Good women need our help, bad women need to be punished” — Learning about Sex Workers’ Rights in South Korea

Caption: South Korean women working in the sex industry stand on a stage during a rally in central Seoul on September 22, 2011 in protest at frequent crackdowns by authorities. About 1,500 women wearing masks to conceal their identities chanted slogans such as ‘Sex work is not a crime, but labour!’ and called for the abolition of a special law enacted in 2004 to curb prostitution. [Photo: Jung Yeon-Je — AFP/Getty Images]

[James] — Since September 2011, German-born researcher Matthias Lehmann has been conducting an independent research project to investigate the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws on sex workers’ human rights and livelihood. In this guest post for The Grand Narrative, he outlines key events that led to the adoption of the problematic law and the motivation for his research:

Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws

In September 2000, the notorious Gunsan Brothel Fire killed five women who had been held captive. Their tragic deaths exposed the conditions in Korea’s sex industry and triggered a campaign by women’s rights activists to reform the country’s prostitution laws. Their proposals became the blueprint for the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매특별법, Seongmaemae Tteukbyeolbeob), enacted in 2004, which include a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act. By passing these new laws, the government vowed to eliminate prostitution and protect victims of exploitation and violence in the sex industry.

The laws drew inspiration from the Swedish Violence Against Women Act (the Kvinnofrid law) from 1999, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services but aims to protect women working in the sex industry. The success of the Swedish model remains heavily contested. In 2010, the government issued an evaluation report that found that the law had achieved its objectives, to which government member Camilla Lindberg and opposition member Marianne Berg responded by publishing a bi-partisan article stating that the law had not only failed to protect women but instead hurt them, and thus had to be repealed.

In Korea, the Special Laws on Sex Trade remain a subject of debate. The Ministry of Gender Equality celebrated the legislation as a milestone achievement that would “vigorously strengthen the protection of the human rights of women in prostitution”. However, others criticise the legislation’s discriminatory attitude towards sex workers, who remain criminalised unless they claim to be victims. This “distinction between victims and those who [voluntarily] sell sex is actually one between protection and punishment” and categorises women into “good women who are worthy of help” and “bad ones who need to be punished”, thus continuing the stigmatisation of women who sell sex.

The Criminalisation of Prostitution Has Failed

Surveys have shown time and again, that despite being illegal, prostitution remains widespread in South Korea. Most recently, a state-funded survey found that 53 per cent of Korea’s sexually active senior citizens bought sex at brothels. A 2005 study found that “only 6 per cent of crimes occurred through the intermediary of a brothel, compared to 34 per cent via the internet, 26 per cent in massage parlours and barber shops.” The same study stated that the Anti-Sex Trade Laws had simply forced prostitutes further underground and overseas, as well as resulted in an increase in Korean sex tourists, a development very similar to that in Sweden.

According to the recent Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work, “the approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. … [Criminal laws] create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.”

Caption: Screenshot from a short film by Istvan Gabor Takacs, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network

Research Project Korea

Conducting research into the human rights situation of Korean sex workers is of particular importance because, while Korean sex workers have some links to the global sex workers’ rights movement, too little is known about their everyday experiences.

Since 2004, Korean sex workers have repeatedly staged organised protests against the Anti-Sex Trade Laws and police harassment, most famously in May 2011, when pictures of sex workers dousing themselves in flammable liquid made global headlines.

Caption: South Korean prostitutes in underwear and covered in body and face paint, douse themselves in flammable liquid in an apparent attempt to burn themselves after a rally in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Hundreds of prostitutes and pimps rallied Tuesday near a red-light district in Seoul to protest a police crackdown on brothels, with some unsuccessfully attempting to set themselves on fire. [AP Photo/Lee Jin-man]

But despite an even bigger protest last September, the human rights situation of sex workers remains grim. While I cannot yet estimate the frequency of such occurrences, it is evident that verbal and physical abuses against sex workers are common features of police raids in the Korean sex industry, as is corruption.

Human Rights become Collateral Damage

Through my previous research and work in the field of human trafficking prevention, I have gained a deeper insight into the negative side effects of anti-trafficking policies. Research by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women found that some of them are undesired or unexpected, while others result from problems related to the implementation of new legislation, such as the lack of knowledge, training or aptitude of law enforcement officials.

But there are also desired side effects, resulting from policies that are intentionally worded vaguely and do little more than to satisfy what international human rights standards require. As a result, human rights quickly become the collateral damage of urban redevelopment projects, such as in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo district, or efforts to curb unofficial migration and undocumented labour.

The conflation of anti-trafficking measures with campaigns to eradicate the sex industry has resulted in uneven policies that do not help the majority of trafficking victims, but instead drive the sex industry further underground, cutting off sex workers from their usual support networks.

Improving sex work-related legislation is a hotly contested issue that deserves to be discussed on the basis of sound knowledge, which I like to contribute to through my research. However, my project is not just meant to add to academic or legal discourses.

Graphic Novel about Sex Work

Sex workers often rightly criticise researchers, politicians or the media for distorting the reality of the sex industry. We are therefore developing a graphic novel entirely based on experiences shared with us by sex workers in Korea. It will be made available in both English and Korean, with the publication planned for the second half of this year.

Many Koreans have a keen interest in supporting humanitarian causes abroad. Yet, I have found that they are often quite surprised to learn that the hardships that sex workers endure in Korea can be quite different from their expectations.

Through the graphic novel, we would like to help making the situation of Korean sex workers known to a wider audience, both in Korea and abroad, in order for people to better understand that sex workers are part of their communities and deserve the same rights just as everyone else.

Research Project Korea + You!

Research Project Korea is an independent research project, unaffiliated to any university or organisation and exclusively funded by private donations. We publish regular updates on the project’s website, where you can also learn more about my team, and you can follow us via Facebook and Twitter. A Korean language section will be added to the website shortly.

Please visit our website to learn how you can support us and how our funds are spent.


Further information and highly recommended viewing/reading

[VIDEO] “We want to save you. And if you don’t appreciate it, we will punish you!”
Swedish sexworker Pye Jacobsson on the criminalization of clients

[ARTICLE] Wendy Lyon “UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban”

[VIDEO] South Korean sex workers rally | Reuters News Agency

[IMAGES] South Korean Prostitutes Protest Closing of Brothels,29307,2072487,00.html

[ORGANISATION] Giant Girls – Korean Sex Workers Union

[ORGANISATION] Hanteo – National Sex Workers Union