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Large, red-lettered signs warn police that they're willing to die to protect their livelihoods. Nearly seven years after tough laws began driving thousands of South Korean prostitutes out of business, the sex workers of the Yeongdeungpo red-light district in Seoul are fighting back, spurred by what they say is an unprecedented campaign of police harassment.
Since April they've staged large, sometimes violent, protests that provide a glimpse of the tensions in this fast-changing country as ambitious urban redevelopment projects encroach on old neighborhoods once known for their nightlife. Rallies by sex workers against police crackdowns crop up occasionally in South Korea, but the protests in Yeongdeungpo — which have drawn hundreds of other prostitutes, pimps and supporters — have been unusual in their size, organization and fury.
The district's 40 to 50 prostitutes describe their fight in life-and-death terms. At a recent protest, about 20 topless women covered in body and face paint doused themselves in flammable liquid and had to be restrained from setting themselves on fire.
The demonstrations come as new building projects around the country threaten gritty neighborhoods that are home to aging bars, street food stalls and brothels. If the prostitutes in Yeongdeungpo lose their jobs, they could struggle to find work elsewhere. Where can we move? On a recent night, about 20 prostitutes stood in skimpy clothing behind pink neon-lit brothel windows, shouting out invitations to a few men walking along the street.
Many brothels have suspended business because of the crackdown. Signs in those still open show their occupants' defiance: "We will die here," they read, or "I will pour fuel on my body and die gloriously. Prostitution was banned in South Korea in , but police rarely enforced the law.