On February 8, 2018 a South Korean court awarded compensation to 117 women who were pressured to work as prostitutes in government supervised sex camps next to U.S. military bases. It was the first time the South Korean government has been ordered to pay compensation to women who worked in brothels in the sex camps. The sex workers were also known as “comfort women.”
From before the Korean War began in 1951 until the late 1990s the South Korean government built and directly operated sex camps near U.S. military bases. The sex camps served the dual purpose of helping to strengthen South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. by providing readily available sexual services to military personnel; and, they were a reliable source of revenue and foreign currency for the government.
The sex camps were economically vital to South Korea’s government: during the 1960s they generated about 25% of South Korea’s Gross National Product. Even as late as the mid-1990s the sex camps were still contributing about 1% to the country’s GNP. A total of many billions of dollars were spent by soldiers in the sex camps. Of course, the source of all that money was U.S. taxpayers — who were unknowingly complicit in financially supporting the sex camps.
It is estimated that in the 1950s and 1960s more than 60% of South Korea’s prostitutes worked in the sex camps. It is also estimated that before the South Korean government ended its direct involvement, a total of more than one million women worked in the sex camps. It was big business.
The South Korean government openly encouraged and advocated for young women to engage in sex work by conducting “patriotic education” that promoted the idea it was the highest form of patriotism for a woman to trade her body for currency from U.S. soldiers. Even in junior high school girls were indoctrinated about the virtue of working as a prostitute as a form of true patriotism. Young women who lived near the sex camps were pressured by the government to work in the camps, and once there, discouraged by the government from leaving.
The women received a very small percentage of the money paid for their services.
In 1971 Black soldiers rioted in one camp because they thought they were being discriminated against, and they destroyed some sex clubs. It was reported that to protect their property South Koreans hunted the rioting Blacks with sickles. U.S. military police and South Korean police contained the rioting. The government instructed the prostitutes they were not to discriminate against any potential customers.
In August 1977 South Korea enacted legislation to combat the prostitutes spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Women who tested positive for an STD were forced to identify the soldiers they had been with, and they were indiscriminately treated with penicillin and sent to an isolation facility until they were determined to be clean. The physical effect of the penicillin on a woman wasn’t considered before it was administered. Women certified to be clean after treatment wore a tag.
The U.S. military not only did nothing to discourage servicemen from patronizing the sex camps, but in conjunction with South Korea’s government required the prostitutes working in brothels to carry a venereal disease card. The U.S. Military Police Corps would raid prostitutes who were thought be infected, and detain them to be dealt with by South Korean authorities.
Beginning in the late 1990s South Korea’s sex industry catering to U.S. soldiers expanded to include women brought in from other countries who were told they would be doing modeling. Many of these women were from the Philippines and Russia. Once in South Korea a woman’s passport was confiscated and she was told she couldn’t leave and would have to work as a prostitute until she earned enough money to pay back the money it cost to bring her there. The women were paid a very small percentage of their earnings so it took a long time for them to make enough to buy back their passports. The U.S. government did nothing to stop the sex trade trafficking of these women.
The sex camp industry flourished until 2014, which was when the U.S. Forces in Korea banned all military personnel from visiting any business that allowed a patron to buy drinks or juice for a woman for the purposes of sexual companionship. Clubs in the sex camps operated on the hostess theme, so the directive essentially put them out of business. Military personnel in South Korea now have to procure a prostitute in the same way as anyone else in the country.
On June 25, 2014 more than one hundred surviving Korean comfort women for U.S. forces filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government to reclaim their human dignity. The lawsuit demanded compensation of 10 million South Korean won (US$9,800) per woman. The lawsuit asserted they were supervised by U.S. military personnel and South Korean authorities, and the government not only pressured them to work as prostitutes, but colluded with the operators of the sex camps to block them from leaving.
In January 2017 a judge in the Seoul Central District Court ruled the government was only financially liable for forcing “comfort women” into isolation facilities after the prevention of infectious disease legislation was enacted on August 19, 1977. The judge awarded 5 million won (US$4,175) each to the 57 women in the lawsuit affected by that legislation, because of psychological and physical harm it caused them. The court did not rule on the women’s claim they had been pressured by the government to work as prostitutes and forced to continue doing so.
The women appealed.
On February 8, 2017, Judge Lee Beom-gyun of Seoul High Court’s 22nd civil affairs division ruled that all 117 former sex camp prostitutes who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit were entitled to compensation. The judge ordered the South Korean government to pay 74 of the woman 7 million won (US$6,370), and the other 43 were to be paid 3 million won (US$2,730).
Judge Beom-gyun’s ruling was historic: it was the first time the South Korean government has officially been held responsible for prostitution in the sex camps. His ruling stated: “The settlements located in the vicinity of military bases were managed with the aim or intention to mobilize ‘comfort women,’ so that, by ‘raising and cementing the spirit’ of foreign soldiers, a military union, required to ensure the state security, can be upheld — and also in pursuit of economical aims, such as foreign currency acquisition.”
Judge Beom-gyun noted that the government openly “encouraged and advocated sex work by developing the required infrastructure and by conducting “patriotic education” that stated that girls who trade their bodies for currency are true patriots.”
His ruling also stated: “The state also directly violated the personal inviolability and other basic rights, as, under pretext of curing of venereal diseases, it ‘suppressed’ [apprehended] and ‘deciphered the infected’ [when people were sent to isolation facilities by pointing of foreign soldiers who caught the sexually transmitted diseases]. … Those people were forcefully sent to [medical] isolation facilities or they were indiscriminately treated with penicillin, which can potentially cause major physical side effects.”
The history of the South Korean sex camps catering to U.S. soldiers is not well known in the U.S. However, the Japanese are condemned for their employment of Korean women as prostitutes in “comfort stations” during their occupation of Korea that ended in September 1945. The U.S. military took over operation of the “comfort stations” when the U.S. replaced Japan as the occupiers of Korea. In 1946 the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea outlawed prostitution in South Korea. The primary effect of the directive was closing of the comfort stations. The prostitution ban wasn’t enforced. South Korean authorities created the sex camps near military bases to take advantage of the closing of the comfort stations.
Another little known aspect of military related prostitution in South Korea, is that during the Korean War prostitutes were forcibly transported to front fighting lines to provide services to U.S. soldiers.