Isaiah met Katherine and I at the downtown McDonald's on Friday evening to lay the ground rules. He has done this for years and would do all the talking. If asked, we should just say we’re from Handong University; we should certain not talk to any men in suits; never open a window/door (just knock and wait); if we’re waved on, then don’t be pushy; don’t interfere with the business; we’re there to offer love (not judgment).
|Photo from www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/sex-lives-north-koreans-exposed-9423027|
Ok. After a short prayer we walked to the red light district, just one block from the most popular shopping area in the city. Dark, narrow, crooked alleys were lit only by the bright pink lights spilling from spotless sliding glass doors. Isaiah led the way, noting the presence of CCTV cameras. I wondered who was watching: probably not the police, whose station flanked one end of this illegal district. Through each window was a tidy sitting room; nearly all had space heaters and a cheap plastic chair by the window, facing the grimy alley; one had a tiny kitchen, with clean dishes in the rack, bananas on the countertop, and cute décor on the walls. Another had a washing machine, resting between loads.
We passed a few well-lit rooms with no one in the chair or answering Isaiah’s knock. A silhouetted, stub-tailed cat waited patiently outside one door; plant pots, filled with dirt, sat next to others. Isaiah carried a box of instant coffee as a prop; he also had a bag of heart-shaped notes, written with kind Korean greetings by his wife and children, taped to packets of instant coffee.
|Photo from www.flickr.com/photos/the_wrath_of_khan/2830718332|
We stayed in the B alley, where the older, less attractive women work. Isaiah was reluctant to take us to the A district, with young women for sale, because it’s busier and more closely guarded by pimps and the gangsters who run the business. Besides, he didn't have enough notes just for the B women.
We continued down the wandering pink-lit alleys; I wondered if I could touch the windows on both sides if I stretched out my arms. At one place, a little dog barked ferociously at us from the floor next to the empty chair. A heavy-set thirty-something woman came to the door, just out of the shower with an elasticized pink towel wrapped around her dewy body. She did not open the door to Isaiah’s “hello” or “we’re not selling anything,” but did once he showed her the paper hearts and coffee. Another woman happily greeted Isaiah, calling him “Baby Daddy” from previous visits he had made with his young family. Some women, clearly bored, re-applied their makeup as they gazed into their smartphones, waving us on. Some were cautious but reluctantly accepted the gifts. Isaiah played up his American accent, making Katherine giggle at his terrible-sounding Korean. I wondered if this helped down-play his power advantage as a male, or helped ensure a short visit limited to comments on the cold weather and the small gift.
One woman pointed to me and asked if I was a missionary (I don't actually know what Isaiah told her). In one window, a middle-aged woman, with a single, central tooth, welcomed Isaiah warmly while pushing the seated overweight girl behind her. This woman had apparently “aged out” of the sex worker trade and was now a manager, in charge of several girls. I couldn’t help but wonder whether her teeth were lost to abuse or just years of neglect.
Nothing was as I had imagined it would be. We saw only one man, a shambling, heavyset man in workman's clothes who did not make eye contact with us. None of the women were dressed as I’d imagined, perhaps because they were the “B-level” ladies. One seated lady wore an old bra with gaudy silver spangles glued around the top edge, but any provocative effect was muted by the pink fleece “Hello Kitty” blanket that covered her shoulders, lap, and legs. Some wore gaudy high-heeled shoes that had seen years of service. The women looked bored, suspicious, or blank-faced -- none used the dead snake-eye or “come hither” looks I’m used to seeing in Western movies and ads.
|Photo from www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/world/asia/suit-has-south-korea-looking-anew-at-its-hard-line-on-prostitution.html|
After 30 minutes, we had run out of heart-notes, and we slipped back out to the main street. Walking back toward our cars, we passed a tiny, brightly-lit store with rows of cages in the window, showing little dogs sleeping, sitting, barking, or just looking out into the night with a faint look of despair in their eyes.