Grace Kahng is the producer of msnbc’s Sex Slaves and founder of Santoki Productions. As a journalist reporting on social justice issues for almost 30 years, Grace has received some of journalism’s highest honors, including numerous National Emmy Awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Award for International Broadcast, the George Foster Peabody Award and the Amnesty International Journalism Award. Catch the premiere of Sex Slaves: Branded on Sunday October 27th, 10 p.m. ET.
Q: How did you first become interested in documenting the problem of human trafficking?
A: My mother was born, raised, and lived through the Korean War and then the subsequent occupation of her homeland by the U.S. Military. As an educated woman, she told me about her firsthand experience and the experiences of her friends’ families being trafficked first as Japanese “comfort women,” and later forced into prostitution to serve American troops in Seoul. I was raised with a keen awareness of how women around the world were subjugated, compromised and exploited by those in power, and as student and a journalist naturally gravitated to research and report these abuses.
Q: What was your most challenging shoot?
A: Any time we embed with law enforcement, it is a privilege and a grind. Whether they are federal authorities like the FBI Human Trafficking Task Force, or local agencies led by progressive and determined Sheriff’s and State’s Attorneys, these trafficking operations mean long 20-to-22-hour work days. The law enforcement officers and forensic technicians and support staff work tirelessly and around the clock, so it is a physical challenge to document their work.
Q: What are the struggles of working in this field?
A: The emotional challenge often takes the greater toll. We have met some intelligent young women and girls who have great potential to do good in the world but because of bad luck or some misfortune beyond their control, they are forced to have sex with 10 -12 men a day in order to make money to hand over to a pimp.
These girls are isolated from the people who love and care about them. The men who control them tell them when they can eat and when they can sleep (if they are allowed to sleep). Pimps and traffickers or boyfriends keep the women sleep-deprived, hungry and many times use their babies against them by depriving them of the opportunity for them to see their own children. This is slavery plain and simple.
Q: What have police agencies done that has been effective in fighting human trafficking?
A: Many agencies such as the San Francisco, Cook County and Polk County Police Departments, recognize that the only way to make a real dent in domestic trafficking is going after the men who fuel this underground economy and criminal exploitation of others. They are regularly arresting the men (from CEOs to delivery men) who pay for sex. The sooner more police agencies follow this lead, the quicker this country will be to making a dent in this problem.
Q: What is the perception of human trafficking in this country and what is the reality?
A: The perception is that these girls are someone else’s daughter. The reality is that your daughter or sister or niece or nephew, regardless of their educational level or income, might be a victim and you don’t even know it. We just finished an interview with the wife of an FBI agent whose daughter was being sold by her boyfriend. This boyfriend was someone they had welcomed into their home, and for two years he was selling their daughter to men in hotels.
The bottom line: the cash profits are enormous. The overhead is low. We have allowed traffickers to operate with impunity by allowing Backpage.com, Redbook, and other Internet sites to make their money as a vessel to sell girls and women. It’s unacceptable and I keep wondering when the public at large is going to get up, get involved and organize against it. So far, there are a lot of well-meaning organizations who “raise awareness” about human trafficking, but very few who actually effect any real change.
Q: How did Natalie Morales come to be the series narrator and reporter?
A: What people don’t know about Natalie, because she makes it look so easy and she’s never in a bad mood, is that she is the hardest working woman in news. She is quiet but determined and trafficking is an issue she cares deeply about. Natalie is authentic and her passion for improving the lives of others less fortunate is authentic. She has a profoundly moral center and was clearly raised in the best of families as is evidenced by the disciplined way she approaches everything she does—from running to being a mom to being an anchor.
This interview has been condensed and edited.