DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — When Cho Soon-ok was 17 in 1977, three men kidnapped her and sold her to a pimp in Dongducheon, a city north of Seoul.
She was about to start high school, but instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer, she was forced to spend five years under the constant watch of her pimp, going to a nearby club to hook up.
His clients were american soldiers.
The euphemism “comfort women” often refers to Korean and other Asian women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II.
But the sexual exploitation of another group of women continued in South Korea long after Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945, and was provided by your government.
There were “special comfort women units” for South Korean soldiers and “comfort stations” for US-led United Nations troops during the Korean War.
After the war many of these women worked in the gijichonor “field cities”, built around US military bases.
Last September, 100 of these women won a historic victory when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered compensation for the sexual trauma they suffered.
found the government guilty “justify and encourage” prostitution in cities camp to help South Korea maintain its military alliance with the United States and earn US dollars.
He also blamed the government for the way “systematic and violent” how they detained women and forced them to receive treatment to combat sexually transmitted diseases.
In interviews with The New York Times, Six South Korean women who worked in concentration camps described how their government used them for political and economic gain before abandoning them.
Encouraged by court rulings —based on recently released official documents—, victims now intend to pursue their case In the United States.
“Americans need to know what some of their soldiers did to us,” said Park Geun-ae, who was sold to a pimp in 1975 at age 16, saying she suffered beatings and other abuse from American infantry soldiers .
“Our country has partnered with the United States in an alliance and we knew their soldiers were here to help us, but that didn’t mean they could do whatever they wanted with us, right?”
“Frontline Warriors to Earn Dollars”
The history of sexual exploitation in South Korea is not always openly discussed.
When a sociologist, Kim Gwi-ok, began reporting on wartime comfort women in the early 2000s, citing South Korean military documents, the government did seal documents.
“They feared that the Japanese right would use them to help whitewash their own history of comfort women,” Kim said, referring to the historic disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over sexual slavery.
After the Korean War, South Korea lagged behind the North in military and economic power.
US troops remained in the south under the UN banner to protect themselves from the north, but South Korea fought to keep the Americans in the country.
In 1961, Gyeonggi Province, the populous area surrounding Seoul, deemed it “urgent to prepare mass facilities to comfort women in order to provide comfort to UN troops or boost their morale,” according to court documents filed as proof.
The local government has given permission to private clubs to recruit these women to do so “save budget and earn foreign exchange”.
He estimated the number of women in his jurisdiction to be 10,000 and growing, and estimated that 50,000 U.S. soldiers served.
When President Richard Nixon announced plans to reduce the number of US troops stationed in South Korea in 1969, the government’s effort assumed greater urgency.
The following year, the government reported to Parliament that South Korea was earning $160 million a year from activities stemming from the U.S. military presence, including the sex trade. (At that time, the country’s total exports amounted to $835 million.)
Some women have moved to the fields in search of work.
Others, like Cho, have been kidnapped or lured with the promise of a job. A sex act cost $5 to $10, which the pimps confiscated.
While the dollars didn’t go directly to the government, they did enter the economy, hungry for foreign currency.
A South Korean newspaper of the time described these women as “mean necessary, illegal and carcinogenic”.
But “these comfort women are also frontline dollar warriors,” she said.
Pimps often drugged newcomers to cope with the shame.
Numbers and Labels More often than not, society dismissed these women as yanggalbo, or “prostitutes for the West,” and saw them as part of the price of maintaining a US military presence in the country after the war.
“Officials who called us patriots scoffed at our backs, saying we were ‘dollar winning machinesYes,’” Park said.
Prostitution was and still is illegal in South Korea, but law enforcement agencies have been selective and have varied in harshness over time.
In part, the camp cities were created to confine women for easier control and to prevent prostitution and sex crimes involving US soldiers from spreading to the rest of society.
Black markets thrived there, as South Koreans clamored for contraband goods from postwar US military operations, as well as foreign currency.
In 1973, when the US and South Korean militaries met to discuss the problems of the camps, a US army officer said that the army’s policy on prostitution was the “total suppression”, but “this is not done in Korea”, according to declassified US military documents.
Instead, the U.S. military has focused on protecting troops from contracting STDs.
The women described how they were herded into monthly classes where South Korean officials praised them as “dollar-earning patriots” while US officials urged them to avoid STDs.
Women had to undergo tests biweekly; those who tested positive were detained for medical treatment.
Under rules set by U.S. military and South Korean officials, women in the camps were required to carry identification and registration papers and wear numbered badges or name tags, according to declassified documents and testimony from women forced to do so. activity .
The US military conducted routine inspections of camp clubs and kept photo files of the women at base clinics to help infected soldiers identify their contacts.
Among those detained were not only infected women, but also those identified as contacts or lacking a valid test card during random checks.
They were held in facilities with barred windows and given heavy doses of penicillin.
All the women interviewed by the Times recalled these places with terror, remembering their colleagues who suffered it collapses or for those who died penicillin shock.
Shame, silence and even death
South Korea has never surpassed the history of women in the field, also due to the strong alliance between Seoul and Washington.
The topic is a bigger taboo than discussions of women forced into sexual slavery by Japan.
“We were like comfort women to the Japanese military,” Cho said. “They had to take Japanese soldiers and we had to take American soldiers.”
None of the government documents released in recent years have revealed evidence to suggest that South Korea was directly involved in recruiting women for US troops, unlike many women who were forced to sexual slaveryl under Japanese occupation.
But unlike Japanese army casualties, who have come to be recognized as symbols of Korea’s suffering under colonial rule, these women say they had to live in shame and silence.
South Koreans have begun to pay more attention to the issue of sexual exploitation in the camps after a woman named Yun Geum-i was sexually assaulted and brutally killed by a US soldier. in 1992.
Between 1960 and 2004, American soldiers were convicted of the murder of 11 prostitutes in South Korea, according to a list compiled by Saewoomtuh, an advocacy group.
The US military declined to comment on the Supreme Court ruling or the women’s complaints.
“We do not condone any type of behavior that violates South Korean laws, regulations or directives and have implemented good order and discipline measures,” his spokesman, Colonel Isaac Taylor, said by email.
A Painful Legacy The fields disappeared with South Korea’s rapid economic development.
Although the women who worked in the fields want to bring their case to the United States, their legal strategy is unclear and they don’t know what resources they can find.
In a psychiatric report that Park filed in South Korean court evidence in 2021, he compared his life to “constantly walking on thin ice” for fear of letting others know about his past.
has scars from self-inflicted wounds on the arms and thighs.
Under the South Korean court ruling, Park and others each received between $2,270 and $5,300, which did little to ease their financial hardships.
Choi Gwi-ja, 77, held back tears as she described the various abortions she and other women have had to endure due to prejudice against biracial children in South Korea.
His voice trembled as he remembered the women who had committed suicide after the soldiers who had married them had abandoned them and their children.
She recalled how officials urged women, many of them as illiterate as she was, to earn dollars, promising them free apartments in their old age if they sold their bodies for money in city fields.
“It was all a fraud,” he said.
Choe Sang-Hun is the Seoul bureau chief of the New York Times. He covers news from North and South Korea.
C. 2023 The New York Times Company
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.