South Korea operated prostitution camps: late victory of ex-sex workers

In South Korea, the Supreme Court has finally recognized that the former military government acted as a pimp for the US military.

A detail of a Comfort Woman statue

“Comfort Woman” statue in Seoul Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

BEIJING taz | It is perhaps the darkest chapter in the US-South Korean military alliance and throws a shameful light on the governments in Washington and Seoul: after the end of the Korean War (1950-53), so-called prostitution camps, called “Gijichon”, were set up outside the US military bases. Young women, often barely of legal age, worked in them to satisfy the GIs’ sexual desire.

The sex services, often under duress, were not only tolerated by the authorities, but actively encouraged. The sex workers’ bodies were foreign-made—patriotic commodities to provide South Korea with foreign exchange and solidify the military alliance with the United States.

Decades after the “Gijichon” were closed, former sex workers were able to achieve a late victory on Thursday: South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the state must compensate each of the 95 plaintiffs with up to 7 million won, the equivalent of almost 5,000 euros.

In view of the psychological damage, the sum may seem small. But the verdict comes with at least as important legal recognition: The authorities have finally recognized that the state was guilty of mediating and aiding in the widespread prostitution for the US military. In other words: acted as a pimp.

South Korea’s government had prostitutes recruited

“The mere fact that the government has encouraged and justified prostitution in those villages along the military bases violates respect for human rights,” the court said. But that’s not all: the government formed and operated these prostitution villages in the first place.

The lawsuit filed eight years ago by elderly women paints a picture of an industry that produced less economic prosperity than, above all, human suffering. Since the late 1950s, middlemen under the aegis of the government at the time had been recruiting uneducated and impoverished girls – often underage – from relevant bars in order to send them to the camp villages.

There, the authorities organized mandatory health checks and sent those women who had contracted sexually transmitted diseases into forced quarantine to recover. English and manners courses are also said to have been organized for the South Koreans.

The existence of the “Gijichon” women was an open secret. They were celebrated by the military dictatorship of the time as heroic patriots who earned US dollars for the then bitterly poor state and ensured that the US military stayed in the country as protection against the threat from North Korea.

A look at the archive shows how widespread the problem was: in 1965, 85 percent of the GIs surveyed in South Korea said they had had contact with a prostitute. In the early 1970s, the US military registered almost 25,000 cases of STDs among its 35,000 soldiers in a single year.

Stigmatized as Yankee whores

The prostitution camps were closed in the following years, the oldest trade in the world relocated to so-called juice bars in the nightlife districts – named after overpriced juices. With this, the American clientele buys intimate conversation time with provocatively dressed barmaids.

The US military has also tightened its disciplinary procedures since the turn of the millennium and is taking tougher action against prostitution.

Several decades had to pass before the former sex workers could bring their case to court. They were highly stigmatized, defamed as “Yankee whores” and ignored by politicians.

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