As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in South Korea, and traffickers exploit victims from South Korea abroad. Traffickers exploit South Korean women and children, including children who run away from home and victims of domestic violence, in commercial sex including in bars, nightclubs, and other entertainment establishments, or through internet-advertised escort services. Traffickers increasingly utilized smartphone and chat applications to recruit and coerce victims to engage in commercial sex acts and to facilitate trafficking by communicating with purchasers of commercial sex. Chat room operators recruit Korean women and children, including child sex trafficking victims, and threaten them with the release of compromising photographs to coerce them to participate in the production of pornographic materials. Traffickers exploit South Korean women overseas, including in the United States, in sex trafficking in massage parlors, salons, bars, and restaurants, or through internet-advertised escort services, often through debt-based coercion. Traffickers subject men and women primarily from China, Thailand, Russia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Morocco, and other countries in Asia, the Middle East, and South America, to forced labor and sex trafficking in South Korea. Traffickers force victims who owe debts to entertainment establishment owners or loan sharks into commercial sex. Sex traffickers exploit some foreign women on E6-2 entertainment visas—many from the Philippines and Thailand—in bars and clubs, including “foreigners only” bars near ports and U.S. military bases. However, many of the clubs that catered to U.S. military personnel remained closed since early 2020 due to the pandemic. Job brokers, unscrupulous recruitment agencies, and managers or owners of bars and clubs recruit foreign women under false promises of jobs as singers or performers but instead coerce victims to work excessive hours selling juice and alcohol, and to engage in commercial sex acts in clubs. Recruiters and owners of massage parlors fraudulently recruit women for work as professional masseuses in Korea, but force them to engage in commercial sex acts, sometimes through passport confiscation, physical violence, and threats of deportation or violence. Some victims are not provided an adequate number of days off, face harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and are paid less than the minimum wage or have their wages withheld to discourage them from leaving Korea or seeking new employment. Some bar managers reportedly confiscate victims’ passports or alien registration cards and restrict their ability to go outside their workplace. Women from the Philippines and other countries in Asia enter Korea on tourist visas after receiving false promises of short-term work in factories or other industries but then have their passports confiscated by traffickers who force them to work in clubs and engage in commercial sex acts; however, this likely occurred less frequently during the reporting period due to pandemic-related restrictions on the issuance of visas. Some women from China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia, who are recruited for marriages to South Korean men through international marriage brokers, are vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor after their arrival. Some South Korean men reportedly engage in child sex tourism in other Asian countries; however, this likely occurred less frequently during the reporting period due to the pandemic. Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements related to the pandemic prevented traffickers from recruiting some foreign trafficking victims during the reporting period; this resulted in the increased exploitation of migrant women who were already in Korea. As the entertainment industry experienced a loss of business, some traffickers also used increased levels of violence and other forms of exploitation to force victims into commercial sex. Some brokers also force Korean women who worked in clubs prior to the pandemic into commercial sex.
Traffickers have forced some physically or intellectually disabled South Korean men to work on fishing vessels, and fish, salt, and cattle farms. Unscrupulous labor recruiters contribute to the forced labor of migrant workers, especially those from Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Mongolia through debt-based coercion by charging workers excessive fees, sometimes leading to thousands of dollars in debt. Approximately 200,000 migrant workers employed under the government’s Employment Permit System work in fishing, agriculture, livestock, restaurants, and manufacturing. Undocumented workers are also employed in these sectors, though there are no official statistics on their numbers. Some workers, both documented and undocumented, face conditions indicative of forced labor. Many migrant workers in the agriculture sector are forced to live in inadequate housing, sometime in greenhouses, shipping containers, or dormitories. South Korea is a transit point for Southeast Asian fishermen subjected to forced labor on fishing ships bound for Fiji and other ports in the Pacific. There are ongoing reports of widespread abuse, including forced labor, of migrant workers in the Korean fishing fleet, one of the world’s largest distant water fishing fleets. Recruiters, boat owners, captains, and job brokers often use debt-based coercion to exploit migrant fisherman in forced labor on Korean-flagged or -owned vessels. Reports estimate that nearly 4,000 migrant workers, mainly from Indonesia, are employed on these vessels. Korean distant water vishing vessels frequently use at-sea trans-shipment of catches and can often stay at sea for a year or longer without visiting a port, limiting the ability of workers to report exploitation to authorities or to safely leave their exploitation. According to one study, Korean longline fishing vessels spend the longest amount of time at sea, travel the furthest distances, and have the longest daily fishing hours when compared with the world’s 25 largest longline fishing fleets. Recruitment agencies and job brokers often charge fishermen excessive recruitment fees, sometimes as much as $13,000 for Indonesian and Vietnamese fisherman working on vessels in coastal waters, increasing their vulnerability to debt-based coercion. Migrant fishermen on distant water vessels often have the first three months of their wages withheld to serve as a “deposit” that they are unable to receive back until the completion of their contract. These workers are often then forced to work excessive hours, up to 20 hours per day, with limited rest hours or days off, face physical and verbal abuse by boat captains, salary deductions, are not provided adequate food and water, and are forced to live and work in unsanitary conditions. It is common for recruitment agencies, captains, and skippers, to retain coastal and distant water fishermen’s passports to prevent them from leaving their employment.
Anecdotal reports indicated government officials were occasionally complicit in trafficking and related crimes. Traffickers reportedly utilized partnerships with some law enforcement authorities to threaten victims with penalization and deportation. In one reported instance, an employer received information from corrupt police and immigration officials ahead of raids or immigration checks. NGOs reported some government employees, including police, sexually exploited children and solicited individuals in commercial sex, some of whom may have been sex trafficking victims.