older women turn to prostitution in Korea

I knew that a very high proportion of older Koreans live in poverty, but never understood the full implications until I read this heartbreaking BBC story.

Koreans could once be sure that their children would look after them in their old age, but no longer – many of those who worked hard to transform the country’s economy find the next generation has other spending priorities. As a result, some elderly women are turning to prostitution. ….

The centre of this underground sex trade is a nearby park in the heart of Seoul. Jongmyo Park is a place where elderly men come to while away their sunset years with a little chess and some local gossip. ….

Women in their 50s, 60, even their 70s, stand around the edges of the park, offering [energy] drinks to the men. Buy one, and it’s the first step in a lonely journey that ends in a cheap motel nearby. ….

[One] man, 81 years old, excitedly showed me his spending money for the day. “It’s for drinking with my friends,” he said. “We can find girlfriends here, too – from those women standing over there. They’ll ask us to play with them. They say, ‘Oh, I don’t have any money,’ and then they glue on to us. Sex with them costs 20,000 to 30,000 Won (£11-17), but sometimes they’ll give you a discount if they know you.”

South Korea’s grandparents are victims of their country’s economic success.

As they worked to create Korea’s economic miracle, they invested their savings in the next generation. In a Confucian society, successful children are the best form of pension.

But attitudes here have changed just as fast as living standards, and now many young people say they can’t afford to support themselves and their parents in Korea’s fast-paced, highly competitive society.

The government, caught out by this rapid change, is scrambling to provide a welfare system that works. In the meantime, the men and women in Jongmyo Park have no savings, no realistic pension, and no family to rely on. They’ve become invisible – foreigners in their own land. ….

[F]or the grandparents who built its [the country’s] fearsome economy, food is expensive, sex is cheap, and human warmth rarely available at any price.

Lucy Williamson, “The Korean grandmothers who sell sex“, BBC News Magazine, 9 June 2014.

Women typically work largely as unpaid caregivers, unable to earn enough wage income to qualify for a contributory pension. Older women for this reason suffer most from the absence of adequate social pensions. According to the OECD, nearly half of Korea’s seniors were living in poverty in 2008. Poverty was defined as living in a household that received less than 50% of median income.

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