The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Various articles under Chapter 31 of the Criminal Act, when read together, criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of up to 15 years’ imprisonment for trafficking crimes, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, Article 289 (trafficking in persons) limited the definition of trafficking to require the buying or selling of another for exploitation and did not include a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion as an essential element of the crime. However, Articles 288 (kidnapping, abduction, etc. for the purpose of indecent acts, etc.) and 292 (receiving, harboring, etc. of person kidnapped, abducted, trafficked or transported) could apply to trafficking offenses not covered under Article 289. Similarly, Article 12 of the Act on the Protection of Children and Juveniles Against Sexual Abuse incorrectly defined child sex trafficking to require transnational movement of the victim. However, various other articles under the law could be applied to child sex trafficking offenses that did not involve such movement. The absence of a law that defined trafficking consistent with international law resulted in inconsistent understanding of the crime among law enforcement and prosecutors, and inconsistent enforcement of trafficking-related laws.
Because there was no article in the Criminal Act that defined trafficking consistent with international law and because the government frequently conflated trafficking with related crimes such as prostitution, kidnapping, and other forms of sexual abuse, it was unclear how many of the investigations, prosecutions, and convictions reported by the government involved sex and labor trafficking. In 2018, the government reported investigating 372 cases (444 in 2017), indicting 109 suspects (101 in 2017), and convicting 75 offenders (90 in 2017) for crimes related to trafficking. The government reported sentencing the majority of those convicted for these crimes to unspecified terms of imprisonment; however, NGOs reported many traffickers did not receive significant prison terms. The government did not report any criminal investigations or prosecutions of child sex tourists, despite continued reports that South Korean men engaged in child sex tourism abroad. The government provided numerous trainings for police and prosecutors on sex trafficking; however, as in previous years, trainings for law enforcement did not specifically address labor trafficking, and some officials reportedly demonstrated a lack of understanding of the crime. Officials reported the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) treated some potential labor trafficking cases as administrative labor violations and did not refer these cases to law enforcement for criminal prosecution. Law enforcement entities did not have dedicated anti trafficking teams. The government cooperated with foreign law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of sex trafficking cases. The government did not report any cases of investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking offenses; however, NGOs reported some police officers were involved in sexually exploiting children, some of whom may have been sex trafficking victims.