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The Government of the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period; therefore, South Korea remained on Tier 1. The government demonstrated serious and sustained efforts by increasing the number of trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions compared to the previous reporting period; conducting numerous awareness raising campaigns; providing services to 7,397 potential trafficking victims; and strengthening procedures to prevent trafficking among entertainment visa holders. Although the government meets the minimum standards, it continued to prosecute trafficking crimes under laws with lower penalties, and did not establish formal guidelines to refer victims to services. The lack of sensitivity among some police officials to victim experiences may have re-traumatized victims or put them at further risk. Some potential trafficking victims, including foreign women in prostitution, were detained or deported for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking.


Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers under the criminal code and ensure convicted offenders receive sentences proportionate to the crime committed; train law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judicial officials to understand “trafficking” as defined in the criminal code which does not require kidnapping, buying and selling, force, or confinement; proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations—including individuals arrested for prostitution, disabled persons, and migrant workers in all visa categories—using standard victim identification guidelines; establish and implement formal guidelines to refer trafficking victims to services; designate a government entity responsible for coordinating anti-trafficking efforts; actively inspect industries with high potential for exploitation rather than relying on self-reporting of abuse by victims; draft and implement a trafficking-specific national action plan to guide governmental anti-trafficking efforts; proactively investigate and prosecute South Koreans engaging in sex acts with child sex trafficking victims in South Korea and abroad; increase monitoring of trafficking vulnerabilities in South Korean government-issued entertainment visas, including verifying contracts and monitoring sponsoring establishments; and continue to investigate and prosecute those who use forced labor on South Korean-flagged fishing vessels.


The government increased law enforcement efforts. Chapter 31 of the criminal code prohibits all forms of trafficking and prescribes up to 15 years imprisonment for trafficking crimes; these penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2016, the government reported investigating 562 reported trafficking cases (421 in 2015), indicting 426 suspects (347 in 2015), and convicting 213 offenders (64 in 2015); however, only 33 were convicted under trafficking statutes. The government prescribed sentences ranging from fines of KRW 8 million ($6,649) to seven years imprisonment; instances in which fines are used in lieu of imprisonment are inadequate to deter trafficking crimes. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) held numerous trainings throughout the year for prosecutors and law enforcement officers on anti-trafficking issues and victim protection. Nonetheless, officials’ understanding of human trafficking was sometimes limited and inconsistent; there remained widespread, false perceptions that kidnapping, buying and selling, physical force, or confinement were required to qualify a case as trafficking. As a result, some prosecutors and judges applied trafficking charges to only the most serious cases, and prosecuted and punished most trafficking offenses under the less stringent 2004 Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Trafficking, the Labor Standards Act, and the Act on the Protection of Children and Juveniles against Sexual Abuse. Five police officers reportedly engaged in commercial sex acts, including with children, during the reporting period. The government ordered one officer to pay a fine of $2,000 and trial proceedings were ongoing for a second officer at the end of the reporting period; the three others were not subject to prosecution.


The government maintained efforts to protect and assist trafficking victims. The government identified and assisted 82 foreign sex trafficking victims, compared with 58 in 2015; the government did not report statistics for South Korean or foreign labor trafficking victims. The government continued to use sex trafficking victim identification guidelines established in 2013. In August 2016, the National Human Rights Commission distributed updated identification guidelines to the MOJ, Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), National Police Agency (NPA) and 17 local governments to encourage more consistent, standardized criteria for victim identification. NPA was responsible for guiding crime victims, including trafficking victims, from the initial point of contact with law enforcement to protection and support systems; however, the government did not issue or use formal guidelines for referring victims to services. NGOs noted that without a government body designated to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts, establishing standards for conducting proactive victim identification among vulnerable groups remained a challenge. MOGEF supported 92 facilities that provide services specifically to sex trafficking victims and MOEL operated 39 foreign workers’ support centers. In 2016, the government assisted 7,397 potential trafficking victims through counseling services, shelter, education, and rehabilitation support. NPA continued to work with social workers when screening women involved in prostitution to identify and assist potential trafficking victims. Although the law provides trafficking victims with protection from prosecution, authorities detained women in prostitution, particularly foreign women, during investigations and deported many victims without screening them for indicators of trafficking. Police and other government officials often treated female South Korean sex trafficking victims as criminals, rather than identifying them as trafficking victims. The government maintained an extensive network of support centers for foreign-born spouses and runaway teenagers, two groups vulnerable to trafficking. The government offered foreign victims legal alternatives to their removal to countries in which they may face hardship or retribution. As an incentive to encourage foreign trafficking victims to participate in investigations and prosecutions, the government issued G-1 visas with permission to work for up to one year. Victims could file a civil suit to receive restitution, but it is unclear how many victims pursued this option.


The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. To raise awareness of human trafficking, the government conducted public service announcements, advertising campaigns, and events; distributed materials online; publicized its anti-trafficking hotline; and supported sex trafficking awareness programs in schools. In an effort to prevent exploitation among E6-2 entertainment visa holders, the government began to require applicants to submit evidence of more than three years of experience in the field and required applicants from countries with high overstay rates to apply through in-person interviews. MOEL inspected 20,000 workplaces for labor exploitation, including 3,200 businesses with foreign workers. In addition, the government surveyed the conditions of workers, including working hours, living conditions, non-payment of wages, and abuse in 1,720 workplaces and found 3,337 violations; MOEL instructed businesses to address violations, but it was unclear if charges were brought against law violators. MOGEF continued to operate hotlines in 13 languages accessible to trafficking victims, and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries continued to operate a hotline for foreign crew members on South Korean fishing vessels. After a South Korean man with intellectual disabilities who was subjected to forced labor on a cattle farm was identified, the government investigated the whereabouts of 13,776 individuals with registered intellectual disabilities in the same province in an effort to prevent additional cases of forced labor. They were unable to locate 10 individuals and received 17 reports of suspected forced labor; all 27 cases were forwarded to the police. The government lacked a trafficking-specific national plan of action, but included proposed anti-trafficking efforts in its human rights national action plan. To curb the demand for commercial sex acts, the government carried out awareness campaigns at airports, railroad stations, and with travel agencies; launched a campaign targeting government employees and certain private companies to prevent Korean tourists from engaging in sex tourism overseas; and, in partnership with the Philippines embassy, distributed leaflets to inform Korean travelers of local sex trafficking laws. South Korean men remained a source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. The government denied passport issuance to four South Koreans (15 in 2015) for engagement in sex tourism abroad; however, it did not prosecute or convict any South Korean sex tourists. The government continued to provide anti-trafficking training to troops prior to their deployment abroad on international peacekeeping missions and anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel.


As reported over the past five years, the ROK is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. South Korean women are subjected to forced prostitution in South Korea and abroad. Some South Korean women enter destination countries on tourist, work, or student visas, and are forced into prostitution in massage parlors, salons, bars, restaurants, or through internet-advertised escort services. Some victims who owe debts to entertainment establishment owners or loan sharks are forced into prostitution. Some disabled or intellectually disabled South Korean men are vulnerable to exploitation and have been forced to work on salt and cattle farms where they experience verbal and physical abuse, non-payment of wages, long work hours, and poor working and living conditions. Traffickers utilize smartphone applications to exploit victims and South Korean children are vulnerable to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation through online recruitment. In need of money for living expenses and shelter, some runaway girls are subjected to sex trafficking.

Men and women from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries in Asia, the Middle East, and South America are subjected to forced labor in South Korea and on fishing vessels registered and operated by South Koreans; some women from these regions are subjected to forced prostitution. Migrant workers, especially those from Vietnam, China, and Indonesia, can incur thousands of dollars in debt, contributing to their vulnerability to debt bondage. Approximately 400,000 low-skilled migrant workers, many employed under the government’s employment permit system, work in fishing, agriculture, livestock, restaurants, and manufacturing; some of these workers face conditions indicative of forced labor. The ROK is a transit point for Southeast Asian fishermen subjected to forced labor on fishing ships bound for Fiji and other ports in the Pacific. Foreign fishermen aboard small fishing vessels operating beyond the purview of the government or owners’ cooperatives are vulnerable to exploitation, including forced labor. Some foreign women on E6-2 entertainment visas—mostly from the Philippines, China, and Kyrgyzstan—are subjected to forced prostitution in entertainment establishments near ports and U.S. military bases. Some women from China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia, who are recruited for marriage to South Korean men through international marriage brokers, are subjected to forced prostitution or forced labor after their arrival. Some South Korean men engage in child sex tourism in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, and the Philippines.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future