UIJEONGBU, South Korea — Growing up in hardship in this once-poor Cold War outpost, the young Kim Kyeong-sun decades ago met a job recruiter who promised her housing and a paycheck to support her family.
Her real job? A sex worker for American GIs.
In a former neon-lit shantytown right outside an army base entrance, the hostess eked out a living flirting and trysting with soldiers who rotated in and out of South Korea. Descending into a life of hard drugs and debt, she sought a way out through marriage with a customer. Nuptials with American servicemen were a common escape from indentured sex servitude, she recalled.
But her man later abandoned her and their child.
This "keejichon" — the Korean term for a gray and grubby “army base town” — has closed shop. But the prostitutes who once lingered here continue to be treated as untouchables, derided as “Yankee whores” and “UN ladies.”
“I have so many regrets. Life was so hard,” Kim said.
Who’s to blame?
It’s not entirely the fault of US soldiers, she argues, many of whom were young, fun-loving and surprisingly innocent men. Rather, Kim points the finger at another alleged culprit: the South Korean government, which she argues backhandedly encouraged this largely illegal trade.
She joins 121 other “comfort women” in a $1.2 million lawsuit that’s expected to go to trial soon.
Each former sex worker seeks close to $10,000 in damages, an apology, and an investigation into the government’s alleged encouragement of the activity. The compensation may be minimal, but more meaningful is the message that victory would send, potentially amounting to an admission of government responsibility for coerced prostitution that served the US military.
No one is claiming that government agents literally pimped out young women to horny American soldiers. South Korea formally banned the sex trade in the early 1960s, but permitted activities in designated red-light districts at certain times, say scholars and activists.
It wasn’t until 2004 that South Korea passed a law doling out harsher punishments for the procurement of prostitution, falling in line with international standards.
The lawsuit alleges that, since 1957, poor and undereducated South Korean women were pressured into prostitution in those government-designated zones around American military bases. Authorities should be legally held responsible because they turned a blind eye and therefore promoted the trade, according to the filing.
Former prostitutes say that the government rounded up bar workers — some of whom were girls in their mid-teens — and mandated that they undergo forced STD testing. The ones who tested positive for diseases were held against their will in quarantine and treatment centers, say the plaintiffs. “It was terrible. And we believe that the government was responsible for its negligence,” said Kim, the former sex worker, who was tested multiple times.
The government also sponsored etiquette and English-language classes for these hostesses, where they were praised for contributing to economic development and national security.
Scholars say the South Korean government, run by three dictators from the 1960s to 1980s, sought to please the US military out of fear that it would depart, while bringing in US dollars to buttress this struggling economy. In the past, the South Korean government has denied encouraging prostitution. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family would not comment on the litigation.
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In the early 1970s, the White House ordered a reduction of the American military presence in South Korea, pushing the sex trade into decline.
So why bring a controversial and scorching lawsuit forward now, decades after these women left the sex industry?
Previously, a history of stigma stopped them from going public, and the nation’s once-fledgling democracy movement didn’t pay attention to their plight until the late 1980s, say lawyers representing the case. “Only recently could they openly come out and talk about their experiences,” said Ha Ju-hee, a lawyer at the Justice and Peace Law Group, the nonprofit that represents the former prostitutes in court.
“Women who were involved in prostitution around US military bases have largely been ignored by our society until now,” she said. Planning for the litigation, and getting the victims on board, has taken a few years.
At first, many former “comfort women” were uneasy about coming forward, the attorney added. Later, “they realized that this issue isn't strictly a personal problem, but rather a structural one that stemmed from a lack of governmental support for their basic rights.”
But experts raise questions over the use of the term “comfort women” to describe these former sex workers, which they say is a way of raising public attention.
The label “comfort women” usually refers to sex slaves exploited by Japanese soldiers during World War II, a heated and sensitive topic because those elderly women, too, seek compensation from the Japanese government.
Japan committed a number of crimes against humanity during its occupation of the Korean peninsula before and during World War II, including the enslavement of Korean women to entertain its soldiers.
“My guess is that they chose to frame the US military prostitution issue to ride the coattails of the Japanese ‘comfort women’ or 'jeongsindae' movement,” said Katharine Moon, the Korea studies chair at the Brookings Institution, and the author of "Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in Korea-US Relations."
“They could have assumed — I have no proof — that there might be public sympathy or understanding, since the Japanese ‘comfort women’ issue is well-known nationally and internationally,” she said. "But I think it was a mistake to choose that term. It undercuts the jeongsindae case and confuses the public.”
In 1953, Korean War hostilities were halted, but military prostitution continues to rattle this nation, home to 28,500 American servicemen. Some left-wing South Korean lawmakers have found a cause celebre calling for a tougher stance on alleged crimes by US servicemen, and by accusing American bases of environmental degradation since the mid 1990s.
The movement reached its zenith a decade ago, when South Korea was home to a series of passionate, widespread protests calling on the American military to clean up its act — fueled in part by a 2002 tragedy in which an armored vehicle ran over two schoolgirls. Even today, a handful of nightlife hangouts bar American soldiers from their premises.
Over the past few years, the US Forces Korea, the official name of the military presence, has countered with an about-face, enforcing stronger curfews, the occasional alcohol ban, and harsher punishments for servicemen caught indulging in the sex trade.
Filipina and occasionally Russian women now populate the majority of the hostess bars of Dongducheon, Uijeongbu and Pyeongtaek, three cities that are home to notorious red-light districts for American personnel. Upon arrival to their new jobs, a few of these grungy saloons seize the women's passports — which according to some experts makes them trafficked.
Max Kim contributed reporting.