It was the evening of a US Government shutdown and the streets of Washington DC were dead quiet.

Business is quiet too that night for Kim, a 27-year-old graduate student originally from Korea who takes her clothes off for money at a local strip club and does escort work with "extras".

The Herald got in touch with her through an advertisement placed on an adult entertainment site .

Kim is casually dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. We meet outside the Camelot Show Bar on M Street in downtown DC and move on to a Japanese ramen bar nearby to talk.

Advertisement

"I know that American people will be telling you that we girls are victims of trafficking and that sort of crap, but I can tell you that I do it willingly," she said at the start of our chat.

Kim, who also goes by the names Babe, Karma and Sugar, says she grew up in Seoul, Korea, but came to America for further education after graduating.

"My parents don't know I'm doing this and what I do is considered illegal in America, so that's why I cannot tell you my real name," she explained.

Kim began stripping about a year ago after a college mate, who had also been dancing, took her to a strip club.

Prostitution is illegal in most parts of America, including Washington DC, so strip clubs are the only adult entertainment establishments.

Kim says the underground world of escort services, Asian health spas and massage parlour brothels may be out of sight, but is very much alive.

"In the online world it is very different, because that is where the real American adult entertainment world is," she said.

As a stripper, she can take home between $1000 to $2000 a week - but that could be earned on one good night of escort work, which usually involved having sex with the client.

"I am not a trafficking victim, I do it for the money," Kim reiterated.

But one incident just before Christmas last year left her shaken.

When she refused a client's request to have unprotected sex, the client took out a pistol and pointed it at her head.

"That night, I thought I was surely going to die," she says.

"After that, I had to let him do anything he wanted with me but I began thinking that no money is worth it for me to have to go through this."

The New Zealand appeal

Kim, who works for herself and doesn't have a pimp, says a recent upsurge in police crackdowns on prostitution is making her think of moving to a third country to continue what she does.

Guns on sale at a gun show in Texas, where all you need is some form of ID to buy. Photo / supplied.
Guns on sale at a gun show in Texas, where all you need is some form of ID to buy. Photo / supplied.

Earlier this month, the website where Kim advertises her services and its affiliated websites were seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Its founders and employees were charged with money laundering and aiding prostitution.

Kim says services are being offered by Korean brokers on an Asian online chat group via messaging app Kakaotalk to bring sex workers to New Zealand.

"They say we can earn $1000 a day, and we don't have to worry about police because prostitution is legal there," Kim says.

"The biggest attraction is that New Zealand is safe, and where clients don't carry gun."

She says other Korean sex workers, who had done stints in New Zealand, have also shared on the closed chat group that they had earned up to $100,000 in the three months that their visas allowed them to be in the country.

"We know because we share such things on our chat group," Kim says.

In Houston Texas, another sex worker who is originally from Hong Kong told the Herald similar services were also being offered on WeChat, another mobile app where users are mainly Chinese.

Half truths

It's illegal for migrants on temporary visas to provide commercial sexual services in New Zealand.

Annah Pickering, former sex worker and spokeswoman for the NZ Prostitutes Collective. Photo / Greg Bowker
Annah Pickering, former sex worker and spokeswoman for the NZ Prostitutes Collective. Photo / Greg Bowker

Annah Pickering, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) regional manager, said many of the migrant sex workers were being enticed by brokers and operators to come to New Zealand but were not being told the "whole truth".

"The migrant workers are being told by these brokers and operators that they are allowed to work in the industry," Pickering said.

"Often it is not until they come into contact with NZPC, or through our closed social media chat group, that we tell them what the actual situation is with the law...which prohibits any migrant worker from working in the sex industry."

Migrants who had been deceived or coerced to work in the sex industry would be treated as a suspected victims of trafficking, Immigration New Zealand said.

Caught out

Immigration New Zealand and the police have a long history of brothel raids and many migrant workers have been caught and deported that way.

What the inside of a Cantina brothel looks like, Museum of Modern Day Slavery. Photo / Lincoln Tan
What the inside of a Cantina brothel looks like, Museum of Modern Day Slavery. Photo / Lincoln Tan

In 2015, a 27-year-old Korean sex worker came to New Zealand after establishing contact with a broker through a Korean website.

She was caught by police after working for 20 days, and was jointly charged with her broker and pimp for failure to adopt safe sex practices, operating a prostitution business which promoted unsafe sex practices and aiding a person to breach their visa conditions for material benefit.

According to court documents, the woman came on a short term temporary visa and paid a contribution of $600 towards her air fare.

She was provided with an explanation to provide to authorities at the border if they asked about the reason for her visit to New Zealand.

The broker arranged for a Korean taxi driver to pick the woman up from the airport and take her to a Hobson St apartment.

Upon arrival, she was given an induction into the sex industry including appropriate English terms to use when discussing sexual services with clients.

The woman was told she could provide special services, for which she should charge up to $100 extra.

In a written record kept by the woman, police found that she had 196 customers and showed that she charged them a total of $32,875 for sexual services during the 20-day period.

Court documents said the broker and operator would have earned about $15,680 from the services provided by the woman.

Where are they coming from?

Laura Rundlet, acting deputy director at the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says the office does not hold information on how many sex workers who left America went on to New Zealand or a third country.

What the inside of an Asian brothel looks like - the Museum of Modern Day Slavery, Houston Texas. Photo / Lincoln Tan
What the inside of an Asian brothel looks like - the Museum of Modern Day Slavery, Houston Texas. Photo / Lincoln Tan

Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Brazil are the countries where many sex workers are thought to come to New Zealand from.

Last year 133 people suspected of wanting to come here to work in the sex industry were denied entry. This was up from 124 the previous year and 101 in 2015.

Immigration New Zealand assistant general manager Peter Devoy says he is aware of groups offering to help sex workers move overseas but not of specific groups targeting New Zealand as a destination.

None of the 133 suspected illegal sex workers who had been denied entry were recorded as arriving from the US.

"INZ is not aware of any cases where people have asked to come to New Zealand to work in the sex industry against their own free will.

"(But) it is aware that temporary migrants who breach their visa conditions by working in the NZ sex industry are very vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and clients.

"Human trafficking is a serious criminal offence in New Zealand.

"If a migrant has been deceived or coerced to work in the sex industry, she/he would be treated as a suspected victim of trafficking and the matter would be investigated."

Devoy says the agency has "robust processes" in place to screen people coming to New Zealand.

"INZ...refuses entry to passengers where there is evidence to suggest that a passenger's real intention for travelling to New Zealand is to work in the sex industry.

Devoy asks anyone with information about people being enticed to come to New Zealand to work illegally in the sex industry to contact INZ.