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Great books tell stories. South Korea's stock markets and newspapers, along with most other businesses, closed down for the four-day holiday early this month. But for workers in the country's red-light districts, the day is never done. A bar in the city of Kunsan south of Seoul burned to the ground at midday just before the holiday. Inside 14 prostitutes and one male employee died. Initial press reports claimed that "bar staff" succumbed to the blaze "sleeping in rooms above the establishment," as a blurb in the Korea Herald put it.
But what actually happened reveals more than accidental tragedy visited on workers of the night. When the fire broke out, the young women, ranging in age from late teens to mid-twenties, were asleep on the building's first floor after working through the night as prostitutes. They could not escape because owner Lee Song-il had equipped all exits with locks that could only be opened with an outside key. Some of the women, along with a year-old male manager named Kim In-shik, tried to escape through the second floor.
They suffocated after finding those exits also locked. Four victims initially survived the blaze but died soon after in a hospital. One-way locks are the stock in trade for sex traffickers, according to Gary Haugen, director of International Justice Mission. On his desk Mr. Haugen keeps a padlock pried from a brothel in Bombay. It's a reminder of the prison conditions endured by many who don't choose prostitution but are trapped into it. Breaking a lock, he says, is usually the first act of investigators and police who free women from what he calls "the ugliest and most preventable manmade disaster on the earth today.
Investigators are learning that anywhere from half a million to 2 million women and girls are forced into prostitution each year. Half of those are from Asia. Most are minors.
And most wind up in foreign countries where they do not understand the language, much less their legal rights. Poverty is no indicator of trafficking sources. South Korea is a leader on human rights and democracy in Asia, broadly speaking, but has done little to combat its worsening problem. Growing public awareness see "No sale," March 25, and a congressional mandate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of led the U.