korea project

Our position on the Appeals Court's Decision on the Gunsan fire case

20 July 2005


On January 29, 2002, a fire in a bar in Gae-bok-dong, Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do province (located in southwestern South Korea) took the lives of fourteen women who had been forced into prostitution. They could not escape as all the doors were locked and only the guard had keys. The accident was additionally shocking as it took place less than two years after a similar fire in the city caused the deaths of five prostitutes who had been also been enslaved and locked up.

It is shameful that a police station is located just fifty meters from the site of the fire and that everyone in the city knew what was going on in the bar. Even more deplorable is that police officers in the jurisdiction, who claimed that they were not aware of prostitution taking place there, had in fact been bribed by the bar owner, and informed him whenever police raids were planned.

The families of the earlier victims sued the government, Gunsan city and the bar owner on October 16, 2000, seeking 910 million won ($910,000 US) in compensation. The first court decided that the government should pay them 67 million won in compensation and the owner should pay 590 million won for their losses. This settlement was confirmed by the Supreme Court on September 23, 2004. It was a meaningful achievement that made it clear that the government has a duty to protect even prostitutes' right to be free and protected.

The families of the victims of the fire in 2002 also filed a suit against the national and Jeollabuk-do governments, Gunsan city and the bar owner demanding 3,168,524,723 won in compensation. They held out for more than two years in the hope that if they succeeded in holding the authorities responsible for neglecting their jobs and condoning the illegal sex trade there would be no more victims. Despite their hopes, however, the lower court ruled in favor of the accused on the basis that there was no probable connection between them and the deaths.

The families then decided to appeal. The appeals court, which issued its ruling today, found the national government responsible enough that it should pay each family 20 million won, but acquitted the Jeollabuk-do government and Gunsan city. Although we welcome the decision ruling at least one of the two governments responsible, we are concerned about the indulgence given to the local authorities, who were thus exonerated from the charge of complicity.

The court’s decision is critical because the authorities are charged with greater responsibility in matters of sex business now after passage of the anti-prostitution laws. The court should have made the local government pay for the dereliction of duty on the part of its civil servants, which resulted in severe loss of life. It is hard for us to see why it does not owe the victims compensation, when it failed to perform such basic administrative duties as proper building inspection and cracking down on obvious criminal activity.

We hope that other court decisions will soon follow, declaring that the government will take responsibility in both criminal and civil cases when there was any wrongdoing on its part, thereby improving official discipline.

July 20, 2005
Korean Women's Associations United
National Federation for Elimination of Prostitution
Families of the Gae-bok-dong fire victim