By Barry Sheppard
The above was a front page headline for a story that appeared in the May 3 New York Times.
The “comfort women”, a euphemism for Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese colonial government during the Second World War, are well known.
Now newly released South Korean government documents, formerly kept secret, reveal that the “sexual exploitation of another group of women continued long after Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945 — and it was facilitated by their own government,” the Times reports.
“There were ‘special comfort women units’ for South Korean soldiers, and ‘comfort stations’ for American-led U.N. troops during the Korean War. In the post-war years, many of these women worked in ‘camp towns’, or gijichon, built around American military bases.
“Last September, 100 such women won a landmark victory when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered compensation for the sexual trauma they endured. It found the government guilty of ‘justifying and encouraging’ prostitution camp towns to help South Korea maintain its military alliance with the United States and earn American dollars.
“It also blamed the government for the ‘systematic and violent’ way it detained the women and forced them to receive treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.”
The Times said, “South Korea’s history of sexual exploitation is not always openly discussed. When a sociologist, Kim Gwi-ok, began reporting on wartime comfort women for the South Korean military in the early 2000s, citing documents from the South Korean Army, the government had the documents sealed.”
The South Korea was relying on comfort women for foreign currency. The Times reported,
“In 1961 Gyeonggi Provence, the populous area surrounding Seoul, considered it ‘urgent to prepare mass facilities for comfort women to provide comfort for U.N. troops or boost their morale,’ according to documents submitted to [the Supreme Court] as evidence. The local government gave permits to private clubs to recruit such women to ‘save budget and earn foreign currency.’ It estimated the number of comfort women in its jurisdiction at 10,000 and growing, catering to 50,000 American troops.
“When President Richard M. Nixon announced plans in 1969 to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the government’s effort took on more urgency. The following year, the government reported to Parliament that South Korea was earning $160 million annually through business resulting from the U.S. military presence, including the sex trade….
“Some of the women gravitated to camp towns to find a living. Others … were abducted, or lured with the promise of work. A sex act typically cost between $5 and $10 – money the pimps confiscated. Although the dollars didn’t go directly to the government, they entered the economy, which was starved for hard currency.
“A South Korean newspaper at the time called such women an ‘illegal, cancer-like, necessary evil.’ But ‘these comfort women are also frontline warriors in winning dollars’ it said.
“Often, newcomers were drugged by their pimps to cope with the shame.
“Society mostly dismissed such women as yanggalbo, or ‘whores for the West,’ part of the price of maintaining the U.S. military presence in the country after the war.
“The officials who called us patriots sneered behind our back, calling us ‘dollar-earning machines,’ said [one of the women who brought the suit to the Supreme Court].”
It is useful to step back and ask, why are U.S. troops in South Korea in the first place? The U.S. first invaded Korea in 1945, as spoils of winning the war with Japan. During the war, there was a left wing resistance movement against the Japanese occupation. This movement had connections with the Chinese Communist Party, which also was fighting the Japanese occupation in Northern China.
This movement was suppressed in the southern part of Korea by the U.S.
In the northern part, Soviet troops moved in, blocking the U.S. from occupying the whole peninsula.
American troops have remained in what became South Korea ever since 1945, while Soviet troops soon withdrew from what became North Korea.
The U.S.’s aim in the Korean War, which began in 1950, was to confront the new China that emerged in the 1949 revolution. When U.S. forces swept through North Korea and approached China’s borders, China sent troops into the battle. The resulting stalemate consolidated the two nations of North and South Korea we know today.
To return to the issue of South Korean “comfort women” for U.S. troops beginning in the Korean War. The U.S. military knew all about that. But what it was worried about was not the treatment the women received from pimps and U.S. soldiers, but controlling sexually transmitted diseases.
The Times reports,
“The women described how they were gathered for monthly classes where South Korean officials praised them as ‘dollar-earning patriots’ while U.S. officials urged them to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. The women had to be tested twice a week; those testing positive were detained for medical treatment.
“Under the rules U.S. military and South Korean officials worked out, camp town women had to carry registration and V.D. test cards and to wear numbered badges or name tags, according to unsealed documents and former comfort women.
“The U.S. military conducted routine inspections at the camp town clubs, keeping photo files of the women at base clinics to help infected soldiers identify contacts. The detained included not only women found to be infected, but also those identified as contacts or those lacking a valid test card during random inspections.
“They were held in facilities with barred windows and heavily dosed with penicillin. The women interviewed by the Times all remembered these places with dread, recalling colleagues who died from penicillin shock.”
The Times interviewed six former camp town women who described how they were used for political and economic gain by their government before abandoning them.
The victims who brought their case to the Supreme Court now want to take their case to the United States.
The Times quoted one of the women, “The Americans need to know what some of their soldiers did to us.” She endured severe beatings and other abuse from GIs.
“But unlike the victims of the Japanese military – honored as symbols of South Korea’s suffering under colonial rule – these women say they have to live in shame and silence,” the Times noted.
“South Koreans began to pay attention to the issue of sexual exploitation in camp towns after a woman named Yun Geum-i was brutally assaulted and viciously murdered by an American soldier in 1992.
“Between 1960 and 2004, American soldiers were found guilty of killing 11 sex workers in South Korea …”
What about those who were never charged for violence and abuse visited upon these women?
Another issue these women faced is abortion. “Choi Gwi-ja, 77, fought back tears when she described multiple abortions she and other women endured because of the prejudice against biracial children in South Korea. Her voice quavered recalling women who killed themselves after GIs who had taken them as common-law wives subsequently abandoned them and their children.
“She recalled how officials once urged the women, many of them illiterate like her, to earn dollars, promising them free apartments in their old age if they would sell their bodies for money at the camp towns. ‘It was all a fraud,’ she said.”