South Korea’s sex industry thrives underground a decade after crackdown.

Choi Min-seo has been sitting on display behind a large shop-front window for almost an hour wearing only lingerie.

Neon red and blue lights flicker in the narrow alley next to a subway station in eastern Seoul, drawing attention to her and to other scantily-clad women.

But traffic is light in this alley that was once tightly cramped with brothels, in an area known as Cheongnyangni 588. Every other window has gone dark, and clients shopping for sex on a recent night were scarce.

This fall marked the 10th anniversary of a sweeping anti-prostitution law in South Korea, meant to increase penalties for those who buy and sell sex, toughen police crackdowns against brothels and offer help for women seeking a way out of a life of prostitution. Buying or selling sex is illegal in South Korea.

The inside of one of the window displays of a South Korea brothel
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The inside of one of the window displays

The impact is clear: The free-wheeling red-light districts that once dotted many of South Korea’s major cities have been mostly tamed. Many of the brothels that once operated in those districts have been forced out of business. Those that remain face the threat of police raids.

But despite the law’s successes in red-light zones, the country’s sex trade continues to flourish underground, say people who follow the industry.

“Many other girls who used to work here have left for massage parlors or huegaetael,” said Ms. Choi, 36, referring to cheap hotels that are known as places where sex is bought and sold in more discrete way than in the red-light districts of old. Choi Min-seo is a pseudonym.

“The autonomy that the job allows is why I choose to stay in this business,” she said, adding that she also prefers to work on her own, instead of in a brothel.

In order to skirt police crackdowns, prostitution these days is more commonly found in places such as hotels that turn a blind eye to the sex trade and in back rooms of otherwise legitimate businesses like massage parlors and bars, according to people who monitor the industry.

In another sign of the times, initial transactions between workers and clients often take place online, they say, further complicating authorities’ efforts to track them.

Kim Yeo-ni, a 26-year-old sex worker whose name is also a pseudonym, is an example of South Korea’s evolving sex trade.

She said she sells sex for a living over the Internet, connecting with clients through websites that are disguised as social meetup sites to make deals on the price, type of service and where to meet.

Ms. Kim says she’s experienced physical violence and verbal abuse by some of her clients. But she still prefers to sell sex over her previous jobs as a restaurant waitress and a bar hostess.

Police say that enforcing the sex-trade law has become more difficult as prostitution has dispersed from the red-light districts, and officers lack the resources they need to broaden their crackdowns.

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