This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea have sent more than 50 female students of two prominent Pyongyang performing arts colleges to a labor camp for their alleged involvement in a prostitution ring that catered to the capital city’s elites, sources in the country told RFA Wednesday.
The sources, who told RFA that the prostitution crackdown has spread to the provinces, said many of the women were driven into prostitution by poverty brought on by endless demands from their highly selective schools for fees.
RFA previously reported that four party officials and two others were executed by firing squad on July 20 in Pyongyang, accused of buying sex or pimping in a network of paid trysts between senior officials and students at a high-end public bathhouse.
Sources told RFA last month they believed that the executions could have been ordered by leader Kim Jong Un, a supporter of the arts, who was said to be angered that the students, on track to be future film stars, were selling themselves.
“I know that about 50 female college students at the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance and Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts were punished for prostitution from three to six months in a disciplinary labor center,” a Pyongyang official, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service.
The investigation revealed that some 200 students in the schools were connected to the sex ring, with most punished with reeducation. Sources said investigations into colleges and universities in other parts of the country were now underway.
“A joint investigation was conducted by the Central Committee and law enforcement authorities into [the two schools] after the public executions,” the source said.
“It was found through that investigation that more than 200 students were involved,” the source added.
Schools squeeze students for cash
Though many of the students were implicated, about half of them were not punished as harshly because they had only loose connections, according to the source.
“About 100 were sentenced only to reeducation sessions because they weren’t deeply involved. But about 50 who were suspected of being habitually involved in the sex trade itself, or leading their fellow students into prostitution, were reportedly expelled from the school and sent to a disciplinary labor center to be punished,” the source said.
fMany of the students involved were hard-pressed for money – drained by arbitrary fees paid to the prestigious schools, which are under government pressure to raise money.
“The central education authorities give economic tasks to colleges and universities, so they collect large amounts of money from the students every day. The female college students who have difficult family circumstances are thereby forced into prostitution.”
Since the Pyongyang scandal, investigators have turned their attention to colleges and universities in other parts of the country.
Authorities in North Hamgyong province have begun a crackdown on the sex trade at schools in Chongjin, the province’s largest city.
“An intensive crackdown on sex trade workers was conducted in Chongjin from July 20 to 30,” a member of a law enforcement agency, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA.
“About 40 people involved in prostitution were caught,” the second source said.
“I know that among the 40 women who were arrested for prostitution, many are students at colleges in Chongjin,” the second source said, adding, “Recently the colleges started raising money from the students on various pretexts, so the female students in difficult circumstances jump into the sex trade.”
The second source said that prostitution among college students is commonplace, and is a reflection of the people’s difficult living circumstances.
“Unless the economic difficulties of young people are resolved, especially the excessive burden on female college students, it will be difficult to root out prostitution by punishment alone,” the second source said.
The arts students were not the only casualties of the investigation—several North Korean film personalities were also punished, the first source said.
“The case also involved well-known actors who were highly regarded by [former leaders] Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” the Pyongyang official said.
“The actors, who served as professors at the [two Pyongyang] schools, were able to avoid execution. They were, however, banished into internal exile in rural areas,” the source added.
Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il had been a champion of the cinema, having fashioned himself as a visionary director with several films under his belt, all of which are widely considered to be propaganda.
While prostitution is illegal in North Korea, it is generally tolerated, but with occasional crackdowns through which authorities can extract bribes from those caught in the act.
RFA reported in 2018 that authorities were cracking down on Chinese businessmen who were caught buying sex in the Rason Special Economic Zone in the country’s northeast. In some cases, the businessmen were made to pay bribes as high as U.S. $10,000.