SOUTH KOREA – It’s 10.30am and Madam Park (not her real name) is out prowling the streets of central Jongo district, Seoul, waiting to make a quick sale.
This 78-year-old targets grey-haired men, in practising the world’s oldest profession.
At Seoul’s heart, next to the busy business district, is a street where sex is for sale by women old enough to be grandmothers. These so-called ‘Bacchus ladies’ - named after a popular energy drink - are the subject of an investigation by Channel NewsAsia’s Get Rea! documentary on South Korea’s elderly poor, which premieres on Jan 31.
At her age, Mdm Park should be at home, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Instead, she stands on the streets for at least 6 hours a day, waiting for customers.
“In order to survive, I just close my eyes and get it over with,” she said in Korean. “In one day, if there is good luck, we meet three to four men and receive about 100,000 won (S$120).”
She does this so that she can afford the US$250 (S$350) worth of arthritis medicine a month. Her arthritis is so severe that she can barely walk.
When Channel NewsAsia approached her on the street, she said: “You came to play? To meet someone? The room fee is US$10. The fee for the woman is US$30.”
Watch: Madam Park's story (2:46)
COULDN’T FIND ANY OTHER JOB
Mdm Park said that she married when she was 19. When she was in her late 20s, her husband gambled away the family home and left her alone to raise four children.
She was working as a kitchen helper and couldn’t afford to send them to school. Today they don’t earn enough to support her, and she claims that they do not care about her. She currently lives with her relatives in a small house and they have barely enough to live by.
Mdm Park said that her knees gave way when she was in her early 70s and she couldn’t find a job. Desperate for food and medication, she became a Bacchus lady.
“Even if I am going to die, I need the medicine. The day after next, I will go to the hospital and get an injection for the bones. It is so painful,” she said.
Prostitution is illegal in South Korea and Mdm Park said that she has been caught and fined several times by the police. However, desperate times calls for desperate measures.
“It is embarrassing. I am embarrassed because I am old,” she said. Aside from the 82-year-old grandmother who is the street’s oldest sex-worker, “I am the next oldest. And next is 60-plus years old. There is no one below 50. All of them have grandchildren,” she said.
ELDERLY POVERTY AND INSUFFICIENT PENSIONS
South Korea has one of the world's fastest ageing populations and nearly half of its elderly live in poverty.
Its pension and welfare systems for the elderly lag behind other developed countries; nearly half of South Koreans aged 65 and older live on less than half the national median income.
A soup kitchen in South Korea caters to the elderly poor.
Professor Lee Ho-Sun, from the Korea Soongsil Cyber University in Seoul, who has been studying these ‘Bacchus ladies’ for years, said that most only started selling sex later in life.
She said that between 2013 and 2014, the number of ‘Bacchus ladies’ peaked at about 300 to 400 in the Jongno neighbourhood alone.
“I cannot tell when they (Bacchus ladies) started but most of them were neglected during the currency crisis in 1997. Families could not really support their parents as before. So, the senior citizens became homeless and… since they do not have much skills, all they could do was become a prostitute,” she said.
She described the basic pension in South Korea - about 200,000 won a month - as insufficient.
Some of the elderly are unwilling to burden their children with their financial difficulties. Others were left behind in the countryside while their children moved to the cities to seek employment and education.
Dr Lee said: “Times are changing - in the past, it was enough to get by on one person’s income. Now even a dual income isn’t sufficient. Children are not in the position to take care of their parents. The elderly problem in South Korea is very shameful.
“Unless the young adult’s problems are solved, we cannot solve the elderly’s problems.”
Watch the Get Rea! documentary on South Korea’s elderly poor on Jan 31 at 8pm SG/HK.