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Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive

Korean massage parlors are a common presence in most major U.S. cities – so much that those in the know refer to them with the acronym of KMPs. It is also widely known that these venues offer more than a massage – they function essentially as brothels, where South Korean women work as prostitutes controlled by a wide-reaching, shadowy and highly profitable network of traffickers and pimps.

Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive

By Kari Lydersen
Infoshop News
February 29, 2008

Korean massage parlors are a common presence in most major U.S. cities – so much that those in the know refer to them with the acronym of KMPs. It is also widely known that these venues offer more than a massage – they function essentially as brothels, where South Korean women work as prostitutes controlled by a wide-reaching, shadowy and highly profitable network of traffickers and pimps.

Anti-trafficking, women’s rights and immigrants rights advocates are increasingly focusing on this segment of trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States. The Polaris Project has focused extensively on Korean massage parlors and trafficking of Korean women in California. In Chicago, a coalition of immigrants’ rights, anti-domestic violence and ethnic groups are in the early stages of developing an outreach and advocacy structure for Korean women caught up in these situations.

Trafficking for sex work, domestic work and other types of labor is a poisonous manifestation of the increasingly global economy, where people in impoverished countries – especially women – fall prey to traffickers’ false promises of a better life in another country or are even literally sold into slavery by family members or kidnappers. The U.S. government estimates that about 17,500 foreigners are trafficked into the U.S. annually, though some NGOs put the number much higher. Sex trafficking is considered to make up about 80 percent of cases, with trafficking for domestic, agricultural, food service and other types of labor making up the rest.

In general the pipeline of trafficked people flows from the most impoverished countries to wealthier ones within a region; for example from El Salvador to Mexico; or Romania to the Czech Republic; or Nepal to India. Then, either after going through those pipelines or directly from their points of origin, people are trafficked across continents to the wealthiest destinations: the U.S., Israel and parts of Western Europe.

South Korea ranks third as the point of origin for trafficking cases in the U.S., according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, behind Mexico and China and ahead of the Philippines and Thailand. Though exact numbers are impossible to come by, it is estimated at least 10,000 Korean women are doing sex work in the U.S.

In 2006 the U.S. Attorney General’s office reported almost a quarter of sex trafficking into the U.S. was from South Korea, with Thailand, Peru, Mexico and El Salvador also comprising the top five points of origin.

But South Korea is something of an anomaly because it is a relatively well-off country and populace compared to other major sex trafficking points of origin.

At a presentation at Northwestern University in February, Polaris Project co-coordinator Kaitlyn Lim attributed this to a web of factors, including Americans’ demand for “exotic” Asian women and a long-standing, highly organized network of Korean traffickers.

These networks usually operate with impunity from local law enforcement on a daily basis, interrupted by a number of high-profile federal sting operations around the country in recent years. The networks’ highly lucrative and organized nature were laid bare in the 2005 “Operation Gilded Cage” sting in California, where 11 Bay Area brothels and brothels in southern California were raided, more than 100 trafficked women held for questioning, 29 indictments handed down and more than $2 million seized. The ring was allegedly run by a Korean man who lived in Beverly Hills working with a network of taxi drivers and smugglers.

A similar sting on the East Coast in August 2006 resulted in 31 arrests for trafficking and related charges after 18 businesses were raided and almost 100 women questioned. There investigators were told women were forced to service 15 or more clients per night in Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York, New Haven and Philadelphia establishments.

Lim said Korean massage parlors – which are widely advertised in local papers and on the internet – draw a largely non-Asian clientele, while Korean men frequent separate but also ubiquitous brothels called “salons,” usually in private residences advertised by word of mouth. She noted that many Korean women in sex work in the U.S. may earn a substantial amount of money, with some women reporting $2,500 to $10,000 or more in earnings per month. Many of these women don’t identify as having been trafficked or held against their will.

Nonetheless, many of them do meet definitions of trafficking, which is basically defined as the use of fraud, coercion or force to recruit, transport and hold people for the purposes of work different than that which they had agreed to.

Like trafficked victims worldwide, many Korean women were told they were heading for jobs as waitresses, bartenders or house-cleaners. Others reported being recruited for sex work, but deceived as to the type and amount of services they would be forced to provide. Also like trafficked victims worldwide, Korean women in sex (and also domestic work) situations are typically held in severe debt bondage, owing exorbitant debts to recruiters and transporters which keep mounting nearly as quickly as they can earn money.

“People incur debts of $10,000 to$20,000 for ‘flights’ from Asia,” said Kavitha Sreeharsha, staff attorney for the Washington DC-based group Legal Momentum. “So they are in debt bondage. And the psychological coercion is much more impactful than barbed wire. There is the paralyzing fear, and the cultural norms. And even in exploitative situations, someone may be making good money which is hard to leave for a minimum wage job.”

In Korean massage parlors, Lim explained, women are typically charged a myriad of fees for room, board and personal necessities -- including a “rice fee” to the brothel manager; fines for violating strict and arbitrary house policies; and tips to the brothel manager for giving her customers. They also must pay the cab drivers who bring clients and charge about $100 an hour. Women are regularly transported between different massage parlors by these cab drivers, making it impossible for them to get a sense of their surroundings and form bonds with the outside world.

Though women interviewed by the Polaris Project and other organizations may not report being held in captivity, they also report rarely going outside the brothel, fearing retribution if they do, and often not knowing where they are located – signs of de facto captivity.

Lim said the cost of an actual massage at these parlors – perhaps $60 – goes completely to the business, and women make money solely through tips, which come mostly from expected commercial sex. If women refuse sex with a customer, she said, they may be given “bad” customers who are known to be violent or demanding extreme sex acts.

Massage parlor owners or others involved in these networks are also likely to hold women’s identification documents, supposedly for safekeeping or as collateral for unpaid debts. This also leads women to feel they cannot leave or seek help from authorities.

Under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, trafficked people are eligible for “T visas” for temporary residency which could lead to permanent residency. “U visas” are also possible to help undocumented immigrant women flee domestic violence.

But Korean women working in massage parlors and underground brothels are highly isolated by factors including language, feelings of fear or obligation in regards to their debts and the way they are moved around frequently and constantly monitored by brothel managers.

Korean American advocates note that as with trafficking networks from Latin America, tight-knit and tight-lipped ethnic communities which are nearly impossible for outsiders to penetrate keep them sealed off from law enforcement and advocacy groups.

Meanwhile South Korea itself continues to be a major sex tourism destination. The Korean government has cracked down on sex work there to some extent, diminishing the highly visible red light districts and passing the Sex Trade Prevention Act of 2004 which frees women from debts to pimps and shifts the state’s focus to offering women services rather than arresting them.

But on national and international levels, as long as there is demand there is sure to be supply. And with an accelerating global economy that feeds on human bodies as well as goods and raw materials, trafficking is likely to remain a lucrative and devastating industry for years to come.

Kari Lydersen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, In These Times, LiP Magazine, Clamor, and The New Standard.

Additional articles by Kari Lydersen at Infoshop News:

Marching on McDonald’s: Coalition of Immokalee Workers Campaign Continues

Still Soaked: Corporate Settlements Don’t Do Much for Residents of Devastated St. Bernard Parish

Elvira Arellano: Immigrant Activist’s Standoff with DHS Continues

The Injustice and Injury of Child Marriage


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Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive | 3 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive
Authored by: massageLover on Friday, March 06 2009 @ 10:49 PM CST
I totally disagree with your article.

My experience in this field is pretty vast. Most of my girl friends have been Korean girls in the business. Most of the Korean working girls that work around the country live in Los Angeles or New York. They rotate every 10 to 20 days & return home for a month & then rotate some where else. Korean girls are very very independent & stubborn, so there are usually a lot of problems between them & the owner. Sometimes the AMP owner just wants to rotate the girls every 10 - 20 days. Chinese girls are more likely to be stable. Their usually older & not as good looking with roots in the community that they work in. If they rotate it's usually to another MP in the local area.
The Mafia thing is Bull shit. There's no Korean Mafia, at least that runs the massage parlor business. All the girls are independent & usually have an American boy friend or Korean boyfriend that doesn't know what they do or does. The Korean culture has eaten up, caught up, & passed the American Materialism faster than any culture in the world that we've corrupted. Oh, sorry I mean freed. Since around 1955 after they were dead broke, we've converted them. So, with that said, the girls love their Chanel, Gucci, Mercedes sl, Bmw etc, & lots of plastic surgery breasts, eyes, & nose, so they spend a lot of money a lot & then they borrow from Korean Brokers ( loan Sharks ) who usually hold their passport as collateral. They borrow from several brokers & then when they can't borrow any more, they rotate some where else, usually Georgia ( the most money is made here, usually 40,000 in a month) or Bay area to pay the money back. They also send a small portion back to Korea for the folks. Many AMP's are owned by American guy's, but run by their wife or girl friend.
The brokers don't move them there, they just go there because of the money. I don't know why Georgia is lucrative. It is either because of a lack of Asians or it's a convention state like LAS Vegas. All the Korean working girls Know each other either personally or through some one, it's a 6 degree's thing. Most Korean working girls do not drive & in Korea you can have anything delivered to your door step, so they have the same system over here. Korean taxi drivers ( private chauffeurs basically ) get them anything they need & take them where ever they need to go, they rarely fly do to their illegal status in the USA. For example they pay 2,000 for around trip ticket in a car to a Korean taxi to Georgia. Korean taxi's also have many hats, they drive them, sell them drugs if they need them, loan shark money to them etc. There's a whole group of Koreans that make their entire living off of Korean working girls because of their lack of English & illegal status. All the taxi drivers know where the hot spots in the US for the girls to make money & the owners of AMP's are in constant contact with the taxi drivers for new product. This is where the misconception of Korean Mafia stems from & politians love to use it. The whole under ground Korean community intrigues me. I generally only date Korean girls, half regular girls and half working girls.

For a list of all these Erotic massage parlors just go to www.eroticmp.com
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Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive
Authored by: massageLover on Friday, March 06 2009 @ 11:01 PM CST
Sorry wrong link above www.eroticmp.com
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Korean Massage Parlors Thrive on Women’s Struggle to Survive
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, June 01 2010 @ 06:03 AM CDT

Hi Massage Lover,

I thought your post was very interesting and enlightening, especially about the Korean mafia theory. I was just wondering if you had been travelling to Korea (I guess you have) and if so, what differences do you notice between the American's mainstream opinion on the subject, and the Korean one?


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