The three off-duty American soldiers hesitate at the entrance to the bar they are standing in front of. They’re in their mid-20s. One of them grabs the door handle of the place and peeps in. “Let’s go in here.” The three enter the venue. Minutes later, they’re out on the street again. “It’s dead in there,” they yell at another group of GIs passing by.
“It’s been quiet for a while,” complains one of the women behind the bar. “The US Army is moving a lot of soldiers to other places in Korea. So there are less and less customers.”
Though it’s still early, it doesn’t seem to get much busier later this Friday evening. Just 40 to 50 soldiers from Camp Casey mill around these once-raucous streets.
This is the scene in Dongducheon, northeast of Seoul, home to the largest US ground combat unit in South Korea, the 2nd Infantry Division. Beyond the walls of Camp Casey, a “ville” or “camp town” of shops, restaurants and bars caters to the GIs.
But as the US prepares to shift all troops to a massive new base complex in Pyeongtaek, southwest of Seoul, and strict US military regulations against patronization of prostitutes impacts the sex trade, the “camp town,” too, appears to be winding down operations.
Camp town sleaze
Things were different in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when this camp town, and others like it, were buzzing with soldiers, prostitutes and “juicy bars” – entertainment establishments that satisfied their young male customers’ every need. A lingering legacy of the Korean War, camp towns sprang up across South Korea as US bases firmed up their presence after the fighting ended in 1953.
“Mrs Kim” – she requested to be identified only by her surname, and refused to be photographed for this article – said of those days: “There were a lot of women.” She was forced to prostitute herself to American troops from 1972, when she was only 14 years old.
She had arrived on the mainland a year earlier from the island of Jeju to live with her elder sister and her husband. One day “an uncomfortable situation” with her brother-in-law occurred. She was forced to leave the house and turn to an employment agency for work.
“The man at the employment agency asked me to stand in front of him. I had no idea why but I obeyed,” she said. “He just looked at me and sent me off.” The man indeed had a job for her: He sent her to a camp town outside the base of Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu, a gritty garrison town directly north of Seoul, as a sex worker.
“I had no idea I would end up there,” Mrs Kim said. “But I had no choice. I was already in debt because of the referral fee for my first job – cleaning and cooking in a teahouse – he had landed me.”
Mrs Kim is now 60. During her time as a sex worker, she was moved from camp town to camp town. She attempted suicide three times but was found in time, every time. “So I just lived,” she said, simply.
Now, after 46 years, she and 116 other women who shared similar fates can celebrate a judicial victory over the wrongdoings committed against them. Because it wasn’t just the employment agency that was to blame: The state was involved, too.
State involvement in ‘patriotic prostitution’
In 2014 she and the other “camp-town women” filed a lawsuit against the South Korean state with the help of Durebang, a civic group. In a landmark decision, the Seoul High Court ruled in February that the South Korean government “operated and managed” military camp towns in order to “boost morale among foreign troops” and keep “an essential military alliance for national security” in place, “while mobilizing prostitutes” to acquire hard foreign currency.
Roughly 46,000 Korean workers in camp towns earned US$70 million in 1969 alone. The Department of Tourism and Transportation of Gyeonggi province estimated in 1970 that the yanggongju (“western princesses”) or yangsaeksi (“western brides”) – the derogatory names that officials gave the women at the time – earned $8 million annually.
Local governments, police and officials from the Ministry of Health all cooperated, Mrs Kim remembers. During the trial, she testified anonymously, wearing a veil. “The city registered me and gave me a false ID, even though I was clearly a minor,” she said. “There were lots of girls working in the bars that were underage.”
Sometimes, police would raid the bars and arrest girls infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
“Soldiers would point the girls out they got an STD from,” another plaintiff, “Mrs Lee” (not her real name), recalled. “Then they locked us up in medical detention centers where we underwent involuntary treatment with penicillin injections, which was excruciatingly painful. It gave all kind of side effects, but they didn’t care if we got sick. Preventing us from spreading STDs was their only concern.”
These “Base Community Clean-Up Committees,” known in Korean as “Purification Movements,” were established on the order of then-president Park Chung-hee in 1971. Women were also required to take classes in the medical facilities on “etiquette and good conduct.” The yanggalbo (“western prostitutes”) were praised as “patriotic” even though prostitution was officially illegal.
Mrs Lee, 17 when she started, remembers living with six girls and the brothel owner in one house. Working hours were from 6pm until 5am. Running away was useless. “They constantly kept eyes on you,” she said. “If you attempted to escape, they beat you up. They lifted you into the air and threw you on the street. A lot of abuse happened – violence and even occasional murders.”
“Lucky” women were sometimes sold for longer periods of more than a year to live with one soldier. It was a temporary reprieve from the brothel, Mrs Lee says. Occasionally a soldier liked a girl so much that he paid off her debt to her pimp and married her when his deployment finished. Other than that, escaping the trade was almost impossible.
Seoul and Washington in the firing line
In an earlier ruling last year, a lower court had called the government practices “a serious violation of human rights” and awarded reparations to 57 of the plaintiffs. The High Court extended that to all the plaintiffs: Each victim was awarded between 3 million and 7 million won (US$2,730-$6,370). In its ruling, the High Court also noted that the promotion of prostitution and related human-rights violations is “not solely the responsibility of the South Korean government but the responsibility of the US government as well … the US must answer for these crimes.”
A US Embassy official declined to comment on the court’s judgment, saying that it is an “ongoing case.” It is: The state or the women could file an appeal to the Supreme Court. But considering the rulings, it seems unlikely that the state will appeal. Nor do the women want to drag the case out any further. It has been enough, they say.
Mrs Kim is elated with the ruling of the High Court. “It is beyond my imagination. When we started this lawsuit we couldn’t even imagine that the court would acknowledge state involvement,” she said.
Home-grown ‘comfort women’?
Yet the court decision has gone largely underreported. The ruling came just after President Moon Jae-in decided not to renegotiate a 2015 agreement with Japan on the World War II “comfort women” issue, a key national agenda item that frequently dominates local front pages. Under that 2015 agreement, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “expressed anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” Japan subsequently paid $8.8 million in compensation.
The issue of the comfort women – sex workers for Japanese troops during World War II, many of whom were coerced, tricked or even forced into service – has been a strain on diplomatic relations for decades. On Thursday, Moon once again demanded a “sincere apology” from Abe over the issue.
Given the insistent demands for compensation and apologies from Japan, South Korea must be held accountable for its own involvement in forced prostitution, in Mrs Kim’s opinion. “I think the government should apologize first to us before they should ask an apology from Japan,” she said.
But Mrs Lee, who is equally happy with the decision of the court, doesn’t entirely agree. “Historically, our country had no rights when Japan took over,” she said. “So in my opinion, the comfort women suffered a great deal more and were in a far more difficult situation.”
Researchers Na-Young Lee and Jae Kyung Lee from Seoul’s Chung-An University and Ehwa Womans University point out in a research paper that the history of camp-town prostitutes has been “forced out of Korean people’s consciousness and left behind official national history for a long time.” A symbol of national tragedy and insecurity, it is hardly an issue that Koreans are proud of. The women themselves are subject to prejudice. “People look down upon us as ‘fallen women’ and shameful creatures,” Mrs Kim said
“The comfort women didn’t become an issue until 40 years after the war, when Korea became a democracy,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. “As bad as it was, it was something that happened in wartime, when Korea was part of Japan and extremely poor.”
This may explain the time lag in the camp-town women taking so long to get recognition and justice. “I can imagine the same applies to the camp-town women,” Breen added. “Sure, there is a lot of irony, but if you would have said in the 1950s, ‘We should make an issue out of this,’ I am sure Koreans would have laughed at you.”