OK, you’ve all read the SF Chronicle‘s four-part series on human trafficking and the Korean sex trade both in California and Korea.

Well, a whole lot of Korean-American organizations have slammed the series as “misleading” and “sexploitative.” They say:

Instead of educating Chronicle readers about the cultural background of South Korea, the world’s 10th largest economy, the “Diary” series dwells at length, and with questionable purpose, on the titillating details of one individual’s forced sex acts and non-typical family history. The Chronicle series includes many cultural inaccuracies and paints a distorted picture of Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Busan is an international coastal resort known for its open-air seafood — not sex — markets, and as host of the annual International Film Festival, the largest such event in Asia.

The “Diary” series’ emphasis on sex and room salons also misleadingly portrays South Korean women’s contemporary roles. In fact, women play a key role in diverse areas of South Korea’s economy, and are encouraged to pursue higher education. Women officials occupy top posts in the South Korean Cabinet.

They also take the paper to task for failing to interview Korean-Americans:

As a major newspaper, The Chronicle should be expected to maintain high standards of journalistic integrity, especially in topics impacting mainstream perceptions of a particular ethnic group. The Chronicle‘s series makes false, sweeping cultural assertions — such as the outrageous claim that “many” Koreans support their families through prostitution — and yet fails to interview any Korean Americans or obtain their community input. This one-sided, anecdotally based coverage did not meet journalistic standards of fair and responsible reporting.

Salon’s Carol Lloyd offers her own opinion on the dispute.

Personally, I have my doubts about just how “typical” the story of The Chronicle‘s series is, and I guess it would have been nice if they’d gotten some input from the Korean-American community, even if the piece itself was not about the community per say and one almost gets the feeling the real motivation behind that criticism is a belief (Marmot cringes in anticipation of a flame war) held by some—but certainly not all or even most—Korean-Americans that information about Korea must be “filtered” through them first prior to be disseminated among the general public. In this case, Korean-American input should have been sought in relation to the prevalence of prostitution in the Korean-American community. As for the Korean end, the reporters should have—and did—talk to actual Koreans, not Korean-Americans.

Having said that, it’s not like the subject—-Korean prostitution and the trafficking of Korean sex workers to the United States—was a big secret. Most major Korean dailies had run feature pieces on the issue, and like it or not, it has become a major pending issue in Korea-U.S. relations, especially on this end as it pertains to the possible inclusion of Korea into the U.S. visa-waiver program.

As for the cultural inaccuracies, I’d didn’t catch anything particularly flagrant (although I’ll be honest, I didn’t scour the pieces looking for stuff). Prostitution is conducted fairly openly in Korea, albeit slightly less so since the enactment of the Special Law on Prostitution.  The Chronicle series didn’t really tell us (i.e., anyone even remotely familiar with Korea) anything we didn’t already know.  Yes, OK, there is more to Busan than just brothels, but the piece wasn’t about the Pusan International Film Festival or the Jagalchi Fish Market (which is indoors now, BTW). It was about prostitution. If you want to argue that the Western media focuses on only certain aspects of Korea—mostly political issues such as North Korean nukes—at the expense of presenting the nation as a real, live country with an actual society and culture, I’d be all with you. That doesn’t mean, however, that a piece on a focused issue—in this case, prostitution and human trafficking—should also mention that the hangeul writing system is the world’s most scientific or that “Oldboy” won the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

If I were writing a piece on the Pusan International Film Festival, I wouldn’t fell compelled to include something like, “Oh, and did you know that you can’t walk 5 minutes in any direction in this city without passing a place where you could get a handjob by 60,000 won?”

Since we’re on the subject of prostitution, I did get to thinking about something after The Chronicle released its series. Namely, if there were something unfair about this whole thing, it’s this—even before Korea started exporting its hookers to the American market, it seemed Korea had been taking a lot of shit for its sex trade, especially in comparison to Japan. Prostitution is just as big in Japan as it is here, but there, outsiders seem to just accept it as part of the local business culture. In Korea, it’s exploitive and sexist. In Japan, it’s, “Oh, those Japanese businessmen like their women and song when they make a deal.” When Korea imports ladies from Russia, it’s human trafficking. In Japan, it’s a quaint cultural quirt that gets negative attention only when a white chick gets killed and eaten. If I’m misreading something here (and I probably am, as I’m in no means as familiar with prostitution in Japan as I am with prostitution in Korea), feel free to let me know.

(HT to reader)