Did Korea encourage sex work at US bases?

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Prostitute in red light district in Seoul, South KoreaImage source, Getty Images

More than 120 former prostitutes who worked near a US military base in South Korea are going to court to seek compensation from the Korean government. They say the authorities actively facilitated their work - and that the system has left them in poverty now that they are old.

For as long as armies have gathered in garrisons, ramshackle "camp-towns" have grown up around them. In South Korea, they reach right up to the walls of US bases - by night, they throb with music and neon, by day, they seem to recover from the night before.

They are now the scene of an intriguing legal dispute. More than 120 former prostitutes, who are ageing and poor, are suing not the American authorities but their own government, demanding compensation of $10,000 (£6,360) each. Their argument is that the South Korean government facilitated their work in order to keep American forces happy.

In a community centre next to the US base at Uijeongbu City in South Korea, a group of them gather to explain their case. "We worked all night long. What I want is for the Korean government to recognise that this is a system that it created... and also compensation."

Their argument is not that South Korea compelled them to work as prostitutes - this is not a case of sexual slavery - but that by instituting a system of official and compulsory check-ups on their sexual health, it was complicit, and facilitated a system which now leaves them in poverty. It also, they say, gave them English lessons and courses in "Western etiquette".

The women invariably say that they were driven to prostitution because they were poor, living in a very poor country. They applied for unspecified jobs and then found themselves in bars and brothels having to borrow from the owner, and thus became locked into the system.

"In 1972, I went to an employment placement centre and the counsellor asked me to stand up and sit down. He took a look at me and then promised me a job that would give me a place to stay and food to eat, so I would just be working and my room and board would be taken care of by my boss," says one woman.

They also argue that there was tacit approval because the country needed foreign currency. The prostitutes were reviled as people but the dollars they earned were welcomed.

"There was this talk going round about earning dollars by working in the clubs, and that that would would make you a patriot - somebody who was a hard-working Korean. We did earn a lot of dollars in the camp town," one of the women tells me.

Their voices rise in anger and fall in sorrow as they relate their sad tales.

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Image source, AP

Koreans could once be sure that their children would look after them in their old age, but no longer - many of those who worked hard to transform the country's economy find the next generation has other spending priorities. As a result, some elderly women are turning to prostitution, writes Lucy Williamson.

"I accepted a job and went to an establishment. As soon as I arrived I ran away. I ended up getting caught by the club owner and my club owner sold me off to another establishment and it was there that I took my first customer," says one.

But their case is complex. It is true that the South Korean government set up clinics, but these replaced an unofficial network of doctors, some of them poorly qualified, who certified women as free of sexually transmitted diseases. The government is not commenting on the case but it might argue, when the case comes to court, that setting up clinics wasn't facilitating prostitution but trying to protect the women involved.

There were certainly fears in the 1970s that Washington would pull troops out of South Korea.

"I think where the South Korean government has some culpability is that in the 1970s some Korean officials from the central government did go to these camp-towns and try to persuade these women who were working as sex workers to co-operate with the US military command," says Dr Kathy Moon of the Brookings Institution, who wrote Sex Among Allies, the definitive study of prostitution and the US military in South Korea.

Image source, AP

"The priority was to keep the US military command happy so they would stay in Korea because there was a threat of pull-outs of US troops."

The priority in the clinics, Moon says, was "maintaining the health and well being of the US troops not the Korean women". The staff were only interested in the women's sexual health, and did not provide treatment for other illnesses.

Moon is at pains to point out that, unlike South Korea's World War Two "comfort women" - who were forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese military - many of these women took a decision to work as prostitutes, however reluctantly. They then become trapped, however.

"Once these women were there, they couldn't get out easily. They were raped continuously - raped by the manager," she says.

Japan's 'comfort women'

Image source, AFP
  • 200,000 women in territories occupied by Japan during WWII estimated to have been forced into becoming sex slaves for troops
  • In 1993 Japan acknowledged use of wartime brothels
  • In 2007 Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was forced to apologise after casting doubt on the existence of comfort women
  • In 2014 Abe's government petitioned the UN to ask that a 1996 UN-sponsored report on comfort women be revised, but the request was rejected

"Anything the bar owner deemed necessary for a woman to attract GIs to sell sex - make-up, clothing, some decoration in their hut rooms - was rented out to the women. If the women were ill or if they needed assistance to pay for a funeral for a family member, they would borrow from the bar owner. All of these expenses became part of their debt and unless you paid off this debt you couldn't leave".

Over the years, the attitude of the US military has changed. There is now what US Forces Korea calls "zero tolerance" of servicemen using prostitutes. Military police patrol red light areas, going into bars to seek transgressors. Prostitution has also been illegal in South Korea since 2004 - though nobody doubts that it continues.

The nature of the trade has changed too. When South Korea was a poor country, South Korean women were the sellers of sex around the bases. But today, now that South Korea is an increasingly affluent society, it's largely women from Russia and the Philippines who make up the workforce.

Image source, AP

That doesn't diminish the pain and anxiety of the elderly women who now face a comfortless old age. Jang Young-mi, in her late 60s, lives in a grim single bedroom with her three dogs. She worked in a camp-town for two decades and now has only poverty to show for it. "Maybe because I lived for so long with American soldiers, I can't fit in with Koreans," she says. "Why did my life have to turn out this way?"

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