Collapse in filial piety, poor social net produces cohort of elderly Korean prostitutes

South Korea has a Confucionist tradition of children supporting their elderly parents in South Korea whose existence meant that the country never had to develop an advanced social safety net for caring for the aged.

The decline of the Confucionist values, along with globalism, a demographic crunch, a rise in divorces and the historic exclusion of women from education and careers has left a huge cohort of elderly women with no means of supporting themselves except for prostitution.

Hyung-jin Kim profiled several elderly prostitutes and their clients in Seoul, and found stories of women who were doing sex-work to pay for basics like arthritis medication.

There's a regional crisis in eldercare in the Pacific Rim. In China, two generations of one-child policy along with improved medical outcomes and longer lifespans has created a situation where two working parents might be expected to support seven people with their income — four grandparents and a child (sometimes there are great-grandparents in the mix).

Japan's well-known age crisis is exacerbated by a growing national xenophobia, which has the country severely limiting the number of careworkers who can come to the country from traditional labor-exporting nations like the Philippines.

"Hey, do you want to go with me? I can treat you really well," a 76-year-old woman with a limp says as a reporter approaches her on a recent sunny afternoon.

Despite a police crackdown this spring that resulted in 33 arrests, including an 84-year-old woman, the so-called "Bacchus ladies" can still be seen near the Piccadilly theater in Seoul's Jongno neighborhood. The nickname comes from the popular energy drink that many of the prostitutes have traditionally sold.

The middle-aged and elderly women and their customers — both pitied and scorned in this conservative country — provide a look at the dark side of South Korea's rapid economic rise and erosion of traditional parent-child roles. As a growing, ultra-competitive middle class has become preoccupied with getting ahead, many elderly and poor people have been left to fend for themselves.

Elderly prostitutes reveal dark side of South Korea's rise
[Hyung-jin Kim/Denver Post]

(Image: Ahn Young-joon/AP)