Hundreds of masked pimps and prostitutes, some of whom tried to set themselves on fire, rallied Tuesday near a red-light district of Seoul to protest a police crackdown on brothels, the Associated Press reports.
The crowd of about 400 people, mostly women wearing baseball caps, masks, face paint and sunglasses to hide their identities, shouted slogans and called for police to stop driving away their customers.
"Guarantee the right to live!" chanted the crowd during the four-hour rally.
While prostitution is illegal in South Korea, it is widespread and worth $13 billion or about 1.6 percent of the country's GDP, according to a 2007 estimate by the Korean Women's Development Institute.
The rally comes weeks after officials began stationing police cars near brothels to try and scare away people looking to pay for sex. The sex workers accuse a nearby high-end department store of asking police to take such measures following complaints from mall customers.
At one point during the rally, about 20 protesters in their underwear, covered in body and face paint, doused themselves in flammable liquid in an apparent attempt to burn themselves, but others stopped them from lighting any flames, the AP reports. Some of the women sat in the street and wept and screamed, while other protesters consoled them.
Minor scuffles between protesters and police officers were reported.
As part of their protest, a group of prostitutes on Sunday tried to buy items at luxury shops including Louis Vuitton and Gucci in the Shinsegae Department Store, near Yeongdeungpo Station in western Seoul, by paying only with coins. After being ejected by police, they placed large piles of coins on the department store's floors, the AP reports.
“As large shopping malls sprout up all over the country, the long-established red light districts that remain in their shadows are crying foul over interruptions to their services,” reports South Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper.
A Shinsegae Department Store official told the JoongAng Daily that brothel owners and employees are unfairly blaming them for the crackdown.
“I think they are misinterpreting the situation into thinking we are asking the police to wipe the red-light districts off the map to develop the area,” said a Shinsegae Department Store official.
Other malls are reportedly also coming into conflict with red-light districts in Seoul. Lotte Department Store in Cheongnyangni has received a flood of complaints because the mall directs customers exiting from the parking lot to drive through a red-light district, the JoongAng Daily says.
Earlier this month, about 1,000 prostitutes rallied in Seoul to demand the abolishment of the country’s anti-prostitution law and for prostitution to be recognized in South Korea as a legitimate form of work.
See a slideshow of Tuesday's rally by pimps and prostitutes.