Think you know about sex in South Korea?
Maybe you do but most people would be surprised to learn that, despite censorship and regulation, the sex industry of this East Asian country is worth many millions of dollars. From erotic massage to tolerated (often encouraged) prostitution and underground porn markets, South Korea has an active sex market.
Known more for its heavily militarized borders with its neighbors, in this guide we lift the lid on the sex industry of South Korea to explore its culture, attitudes and famous red light districts.
South Korea: Sex in Modern Culture
A largely westernized and democratic country, South Korea has a diverse mixture of cultural and traditional influences combined with a modern and youthful society. As a result, the attitudes towards sex in South Korea can seem contradictory. The older generation has a healthy attitude towards sex but is still influenced by traditional values including the inviolability of marriage; adultery was punishable with up to two years in prison as recently as 2015.
Of course, the rules are still extremely harsh across the border in North Korea where watching porn is a labor-camp offence.
Modern women in Korean society still feel the discriminatory influences of a heavily patriarchal tradition though this is changing.
As in many Western countries, the younger generation has more of an open-mind towards sex and sexuality and, despite internet censorship on nudity and obscenity, has been more exposed to sexual content. Attitudes in this age group have been changing with a study conducted in 1997 reporting that almost 90% of university students favored abstaining from sex until marriage whereas more recent findings revealing 65.7% in favor of premarital sex.
Prostitution and porn are both technically illegal in South Korea but that doesn’t stop the adult sex industry reportedly being worth an estimated $13-15 billion a year. That’s the equivalent of 1% of the country’s GDP!
So, where and how is all that money being generated?
Well, government reports suggest that up to a quarter of a million sex workers operate in South Korea across almost a thousand of brothels in over forty red light districts.
A good deal of business is generated internally with many business deals being conducted in the confines of neon-lit parlors or erotic karaoke bars.
Pornography in South Korea
In South Korea it’s illegal to produce pornographic material but it does still happen. Known as yadong, this is predominantly amateur footage of South Koreans but is very popular locally because it is so rare. Most Korean men are still circumcised and home-grown porn of this nature is in demand.
As a result of the legal ban on producing high-quality, professional pornography, most of the market is filled with foreign media.
It is also illegal in South Korea to view pornography online and attempts to do so result in a site being blocked with auto-redirection to a government gateway warning about government regulations. This censorship has led to a black market of pornography and many users cloaking their IP addresses in an attempt to access online sex media.
The government’s ban on porn has hardly been a success, with almost 100% of university students claiming to have seen online pornography and 99.1% admitting to using it to masturbate….occasionally.
The largest market for pornography is from Japan and not just for the guys. Women are also keen customers for porn and ‘Foxylove’, an online adult magazine, reportedly had over 100,000 female subscribers from South Korea. A slightly less hardcore market, the appetite seems to be for Yaoi, adult comics with a sexual content.
Prostitution in South Korea
Though prostitution in South Korea, strictly speaking, is illegal there are still active red light districts and large pockets of prostitution.
Culturally, with almost one in four men (and one in fifty women) losing their virginity to a professional, little the government can do seems to affect the numbers of prostitutes in South Korea.
The fact is that, despite the law, Korean men like to pay for sex. Which is great news for sex tourists to South Korea. And, it’s not just Korean men, with a modern tradition of US army forces, Korean prostitutes (unlike some Asian countries) don’t mind who is paying for their services.
Changes in the law in 2004 aimed at closing down brothels and cracking down on red light districts has only seemed to drive prostitution underground and force greater competition.
Red Light Districts
There are around forty red light districts still operating in South Korea with active areas of prostitution still found around US army bases. A throwback to the 1960’s, camp town prostitution is not only tolerated by both the US military and the South Korean government but is also thought to be encouraged.
A red-light area, as defined by the South Korean government, is somewhere that ten or more brothels are operating. However, the term red-light can be confusing as most prostitution areas in South Korea are actually indicated by their pink lights.
There are three main red light areas, with the most popular and largest of these being in the capital city of Seoul. Most major cities and provinces have at least one red light area to service locals, troops and sex tourists to the country. Though diminished in size since the Special Law on Sex Trade Act of 2004, each provides a variety of services to locals and sex tourists in Korea.
To avoid the surveillance of anti-prostitution activists it is thought that many prostitutes have abandoned the major cities and now operate from provincial towns such as Suwon. Cities like this have seen a sharp rise in the number of sex workers since 2004, with figures almost doubling as prostitutes (and their pimps) find new ways to avoid policing.
You can read our full guide of the famous red light districts of South Korea for more detailed information on some of these areas.
The most infamous red-light district in South Korea for tourists, Hooker Hill rose to prominence as a comfort service area for US troops. As a result of so many westerners visiting, most of the hookers speak good English and are more than amenable to providing services to foreigners.
Situated in the Itaewon area of the city, Hooker Hill is simply a street that runs up a hill. Walking from Itaewon station, you will find it to be pretty ordinary with shops and businesses operating alongside the brothel bars where women trade from the street. If you get too high up the hill then you will find yourself in the transgender area of the zone.
The largest red light district in South Korea, Mia-Ri (Miari Texas) can be found in the Hawolgok-dong area of the city around the Gireum Station.
There are around 200 brothels known to be operating even since the change in laws though most of these do not provide services to foreign nationals.
Also known as “Oh Pal Pal’ (588) after a bus service which ran through the area, Cheongyangni in Seoul is a popular spot for tourists owing to its literary fame.
One of the major commuter and long-distance travel gateways to the city of Seoul, Yongsan Station has a long history of prostitution. The area is now well developed for retail and commerce but many working girls still use the area.
Growing to eminence at the turn of the twentieth century under the brief period of the Joseon dynastic rule of Korea. Jagalmadang is located in the Dalseong-dong region of the city and is thought to have around 150-200 prostitutes still operating in the area.
Known for its dark alleyways lined with glass boxes in which prostitutes flaunt their wares, Wanwol-dong was infamous as the first red light district in South Korea. Since being established as a ‘comfort station’ for invading Japanese troops at the turn of the twentieth century, Wanwol-dong continues to provide services but to the US army bases now instead.
Hookers can be found in the streets of most red-light areas in South Korea though many will not speak English. In terms of finding one, you should have no trouble as it is highly unlikely that you wouldn’t be approached unless you were wearing police uniform!
Erotic Massage in South Korea
There are small rub and tug places across South Korea (known as tukitang) but also some high-end parlors that provide full service along with your massage.
You can find massage salons that provide sex across the red-light districts and in more central city locations. They are easy to spot due to their advertising, not so much an erotic sign but a traditional old-style barber pole in red/white/blue stripes. If you see a venue with two such poles then you can expect more than just a hand job.
South Korean Escorts
Despite the illegality of what they do, escorts in South Korea are as blatant as they come and you can find calling cards for professional services left in most bars, hotels and restaurants. Though most are not explicit in a hardcore kind of way, you will be left with little doubt as to what business they are in.
There are plenty of escort agencies operating in the main cities, particularly Seoul. Agency Escorts are usually paid cash only with an element of the fee being paid back to the booking agents. Generally providing out-call services to hotels only, it’s common to book for a minimum of two hours which includes:
- Attended shower or bath
- Oral sex
- Full French kissing
- Intercourse (with a condom)
- Unlimited positions
One of the most popular agencies in Seoul stipulates a “two shot maximum” but this can be negotiated with the chosen escort.
Extras which can be accommodated but charged on top of your standard fee, include:
- Double performers (two ladies)
- Double penetration (one lady, two guests)
- Golden showers
- Services for couples
You can also organise general companionship packages if you prefer to have a more relaxed relationship with your escort. Weekend and week-long packages are available.
We can’t advertise these services directly, but needless to say, they are not difficult to find.
This less overt way of getting your kicks is more common and can be experienced outside of the red-light areas. They are mostly known as night clubs as opposed to strip (or lap dancing) clubs. Seoul City has dozens of good venues whilst you can also visit some in Itaewon. Some clubs also run escort services both in-call and out-call so you can enjoy the best of both worlds if your night gets off to a good start.
Brothels in South Korea
Though illegal, brothels do exist across South Korea and it is simply a case of reading between the lines to decipher the legitimate business frontages of knocking shops.
Most commonly found to be brothels are massage parlours, barbershops and whisky bars. There are also establishments known by the locals as blowjob joints, kissing bars and window shops.
Seoul has quite a few love hotels. Premises where rooms can be rented on an hourly basis for using with an escort or street prostitute, no questions asked. Useful if you want to play away from the place you are staying (perhaps on business) for the ultimate in discretion.
Uniquely Korean, kissing rooms (or kiss bangs) are small rooms where you pay for a session of some tongue tennis with a girl. That’s all that is supposed to happen in these places but oftentimes you can get a whole lot more for your money. Another way of Korean prostitutes to skirt the law; kissing is legal. You can get a round of tonsil hockey for $20-30 but be prepared to pay extra for anything like a blow job or hand job.
You can find karaoke bars all over Seoul but not all provide any form of sexual services other than general companionship which can always tip over into more than just flirtation.
Most prefer to cater to Koreans only so unless you are accompanied by a Korean national, you won’t be able to access what’s on offer here.
We’ve got a guide that explains how KTVs work if you’d like to explore these further.