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Curtain falling on Seoul's red-light district called 588 [VIDEO]

A broken mirror reflects a prostitute across the street at Cheongnyangni 588. An urban redevelopment project will soon wipe out the red-light district despite protests from the remaining sex workers and other tenants. High-rise residential and commercial buildings will replace the red-light district which opened nearly 80 years ago. / Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul
Red-light district in Cheongnyangni fading away under redevelopment plan

By Kim Se-jeong

Cheongnyangni 588, a red-light district in Seoul, has had its heyday. At its peak in the 1980s, the district housed some 200 brothels with more than 500 sex workers, and was reputedly the biggest and busiest sex-for-sale area in the capital.

Earlier this month, however, the place was desolate and barren.

Most brothels were dark and empty. Big glass windows were painted with big red Xs and many were broken. Behind one such window were a broken hand mirror, a doll, mascara and an empty water bottle scattered across the floor and on stools once used by sex workers.

Development project driving prostitutes out

The brothel area has long been called just "588," although it is unclear where this name came from. Some historians say it was derived from one of the back alley's address, while others say the area used to have a bus service with that number.

Now the district is counting down its final days.

A redevelopment project will begin later this year — tall luxury buildings will occupy the 41,586 square meters of land — and developers are evicting the women.

The demolition and eviction of the remaining 588 zone will begin next month.

For the prostitutes and pimps but also for other residents there, the eviction, which began late last year, is tough.

Kang Hyun-joon, a senior member of the HanTeo National Union, a sex workers' association, said many were threatened by hired thugs who showed up with iron bars to wreck their workplaces.

Developers also installed surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, as a means of threatening their businesses — prostitution is illegal in Korea and these women can be prosecuted.

Some of the sex worker tenants filed a collective complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against the installment of the cameras, but dropped the case later.

"The demolishers will be back in early March with iron bars to evict them completely," Kang said.

Many sex workers have already left 588 — only 40 work in the remaining eight brothels for now.

It's unclear where the evicted sex workers have gone.

"I heard some went to red-light districts in other parts of the country," Kang said. "Others probably went to find jobs at room salons, karaoke bars and massage parlors."

Kang is a former pimp and said he has friends and former colleagues in the industry.

There are officially 44 red-light districts in Korea, according to government statistics for 2016.
A platform shoe is abandoned in an empty brothel.
 Resisting eviction notices

The 40 remaining prostitutes carry out protests when they are not working. One place was decorated with a white banner hung from the ceiling, saying: "Developers are pimps and gangsters!"

Some have been joining hands with tenants and small shop owners who don't wish to move out, to hold protest rallies against the redevelopment project in front of the Dongdaemun-gu Office.

The remaining residents will resist the demolition and eviction.

Kang said the sex workers need financial help. "They want support to continue their lives."

He said they didn't receive a penny from the developers, although he acknowledged that because prostitution is illegal the construction firms don't have to give them any money.

But "for these girls," he said, "Cheongnyangni is all they know and where they made a living. It's simply inhumane to evict them like this without any support."

Officials from Dongdaemun-gu Office said the sex workers are eligible to join rehabilitation programs.

And the developers say they have already done enough and will make no further concessions.

"We've paid some money to them on humanitarian grounds," said Lim Byeong-euk, chairman of the group leading the development project. Asked how much compensation had been paid out, he refused to answer.

Under the redevelopment project, they plan to build high-rise residential and commercial buildings by 2020.

The developers received a court order allowing them to demolish and evict the remaining tenants and sex workers beginning next month.

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