'Girls Are Not For Sale'

March 20th, 2012 |
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Korea is both a destination and source for human trafficking. The Korea Women’s Development Institute said in a 2007 study that the sex trade industry was worth 14 trillion won ($12.4 billion) and consisted of 269,000 Korean prostitutes. And dbanews.com even claimed that hundreds of thousands more Chinese women were involved in prostitution in Korea. 

Although those numbers are alarmingly high, they are significant improvements from when experts said they peaked over a decade ago.

Part of the credit has to go to multiple government crackdowns and the involvement of religious communities. 

One of those communities is centered around Onnuri, one of the largest churches in the world, and its pastor of English Ministries Eddie Byun. He launched the Not For Sale Korea campaign in July 2011 with an aim “to fight slavery in our backyard.” The campaign is the local branch of the global Not for Sale Campaign, whose mission is to fight all forms of slavery around the world.

This year, Not for Sale Korea hosted a conference organized around the theme of bringing an end to human trafficking and slavery in our lifetime. The Freedom and Honor Conference, held Feb. 10 and 11 and organized in conjunction with Onnuri’s HOPE Be Restored ministry, featured two keynote speakers, including David Batstone, co-founder and president of Not For Sale, and Tara Teng, Miss Canada 2011, Woman of the Year 2011 and a human trafficking activist.

Groove Korea met with Teng after the conference wrapped up to talk about her convictions and the fight to eradicate human trafficking. 

“Human trafficking is documented in 161 countries worldwide, and yet what’s most amazing is that when you see these countries coming together, this isn’t a problem that understands borders, and it has no discrimination based on ethnic people groups,” she said. “So this is something that really transcends, and at the same time it’s something that I see people coming together for; from Canada to Korea for such a common cause. I think that that is beautiful.”

Following is the transcript of the conversation, which was edited in some places for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself and your convictions.

The first time I heard about human trafficking I was 12 years old, and I heard about it from a documentary called “Bangkok Girl.” It told the story of a young woman who was trapped in the sex trade in Bangkok, Thailand. With one sentence, she completely changed my life forever. She looked directly into the camera lens and she just said: “No one cares about me.” The power of that statement — where she literally believed she had no worth or no value, only what people would pay for her — I can’t fathom that. I can’t understand how you can turn a person into a commodity. It was something that just broke my heart. 

You’ve been in Korea for a few days now. Has your experience so far uncovered any misconceptions you might have had about the country?

It’s been wonderful. The people have been so warm, so gracious. I feel like Korea’s become like a second home for me now. Back in Canada, the community that I live in has a lot of South Koreans that have moved from Korea to Canada who have all clustered together in my neighborhood … We have also hosted people in home-stays. So we’ve been able to have the privilege of getting to know a little of the South Korean culture. Korea has come to me before, and now I’ve come to Korea.

What’s been your best experience and biggest surprise?

The conference that we had, “Freedom and Honor,” talking about modern day slavery, and seeing how moved South Koreans were by that. I really feel that Korea is specially positioned to be a leader in this fight to end human trafficking. There are more slaves today than ever before in human history, and human trafficking is the fastest growing crime. It happens in Canada, it happens in the United States, in developing countries, and it happens here in Korea. 

I have personally done work in Canada, the United States, Thailand and Cambodia. It’s been really inspiring to see the Korean people rise up and fight for their brothers and sisters that are being exploited within the country or abroad. And even people who aren’t of South Korean descent are saying that no person should be bought or sold as a product you can profit from, they deserve freedom. That is something that has been very inspiring to me.

How did you get involved with the Not For Sale campaign?

I have been working full time as an anti-human-trafficking activist for a long time. I work independently, so I don’t really work for any one organization. Rather, I want to partner with organizations that are leaders in this fight, people who are coming up with new and creative solutions, who are being effective, and join together and raise our voices in a unified collective voice because we’re so much stronger together. 

I have been working alongside [Not For Sale] and a number of other organizations and campaigns for a while. I love the way that, specifically, the Not For Sale Campaign is able to work. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, or what your gifts and talents and abilities are. 

You, as a person, can do something to end human trafficking and modern slave labor. That is incredibly empowering. We don’t have to sit by and be bystanders when this is the greatest human rights issue of our time, we can actually step up and be heroes in this fight and be engaged and be doing something to see it end — be part of watching history change. It is huge.

When Eddie Byun, pastor of English Ministries at Onnuri — one of the largest churches in the world — launched Not For Sale Korea in July 2011, the NGO said his goal was “to fight slavery in his backyard.” What forms of slavery are active in South Korea? What methods does NFSK use to achieve its goals?

What the research I did in preparation to come here shows, and what I’ve seen first hand over the last week that I’ve been here, is that one of the really big things in Korea is sex trafficking. Statistics and documentation say that there are over one million South Korean women alone that are being forced into red light districts and other forms of prostitution in South Korea.

And that doesn’t include other ethnic groups that are brought into the country. We often think that they are there by choice, and making a lot of money. But we need to acknowledge that around the world, between 92 and 98 percent of individuals in prostitution are not there by choice. 

In South Korea, it’s a very materialistic culture in a lot of ways, fashion is huge here, the cosmetics industry is huge, there are gadgets that I haven’t even seen in North America yet, and it’s one of those cultures where a lot of that is really feeding into [the problem]. A lot of young women find themselves in great debt. They find themselves having multiple credit cards to pay off and find themselves approaching lone sharks. And this is the kind of situation that breeds a vulnerability for exploitation. A lone shark or trafficker offers a way to pay back that debt, and they find themselves fed lies and deception, and before they know it they’re stuck in a red light district with debt and interest that they never really see the end of. 

One of the things that we have been working on here is awareness. People cannot act if they do not know what is happening. The first step is making people more aware. The ability to share that awareness with other people is very powerful. I want people’s hearts to be engaged. These aren’t numbers that we’re talking about, these are people’s lives. South Korean culture seems to be like one big family. Everyone seems to be an uncle, aunt, brother or sister. I think there’s something beautiful about the way South Koreans treat each other as family. We need to realize that [there are] over 1 million South Korean sisters who are being sold — even though prostitution is illegal — in red light districts like Yong Ju Gol, and into karoake bars, massage parlours or kissing rooms. 

The campaign is having success, and I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg with it. I think that even after I leave, that this is going to be something that’s going to continue on. Next time I come back, I hope to come back to a completely different Korea.

What are your personal goals with the Not For Sale campaign?

I work independently, and NFSK has asked me to come as a partner for this specific event. In Canada, we first started what is called a Zero Tolerance Community, and what we want to see is a national action plan to combat human trafficking. So what we’ve done in my community [Langley, British Columbia] is we’ve started the first Zero Tolerance Community. We are saying we won’t tolerate the exploitation of human lives. We are going to intervene as best we can, because we believe that people’s lives are valuable. And that is setting precedent across the entire country. A community has never done that before. Ordinary citizens are saying: “As a community we’re doing something about that.” Eventually we want to see those kinds of national action plans all over every country, so that every country will have a national unified front, a strategy on how we’re going to prevent and how we’re going to intervene. 

How has your Miss Canada title helped you to fulfill those goals? 

I never would have dreamed that I would be Miss Canada, or that I would have the provincial title of Miss British Columbia. This was [my] first time ever doing pageants. Honestly, the thing that I think is different for me is that I know who I am. 

On the first day, we had dinner with all the girls, and I said, “My name is Tara Teng and this is what I do. I work to end human trafficking. This is what I’ve been doing for a long time, this isn’t just a platform or a cause, this is what I do. I’m not going to compromise it to win a crown or a title. This is who I am. And, if you don’t like that, then don’t pick me.”

In the Miss Canada pageant, they’re looking not for the person who can be the best supermodel, but the person who can be the best role model for our country; someone who can be kind of like an ambassador. That was something I could really believe in. 

The title has opened so many doors all across Canada, the United States, Korea and a lot of other places. I have been able to speak in a lot of places; going from slum villages in Cambodia to the highest points of government around the world and speaking truth and freedom and human dignity. Who would have thought that would have come out of a pageant title?

Has the title been a hindrance in any way?

I think that there is a stereotype that comes with it. I kind of like proving people wrong. I know that when I walk into the room, they already have their ideas of what I’m going to be like. It doesn’t matter about all the things that I’ve done before. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been nominated as one of the top 25 transformational Canadians ever, or that I was the Woman of the Year in 2011, all they see is Miss Canada. I love being able to show them that you can be not just beautiful and smart, but you can step up and be a leader. You can stand on your convictions and you can speak for something that matters. Not only are there 27 million slaves in the world, but these people’s lives matter. I keep going back to that because that is my conviction, and that’s who I am.

How might people reading this interview be able to help Not For Sale Korea and how can people in Korea get involved in the global campaign?

Just do it. If it was your sister, cousin or neighbor, would you waste a second? Probably not. If you don’t want that for your loved ones, then it shouldn’t be for anyone else’s either.