When the Korean Government Forced 120 Women to Become Illegal Prostitutes...

by Naomie Tat on February 10, 2017 - 12:05pm

In the 1960's and 1970s, the government of South Korea illegally detained “comfort women for the United States military”. Choe Sang-Hun, who worked for The Associated Press for 11 years before he became an official Korea correspondent for The New York Times, addresses this issue in his article "South Korea Illegally Held Prostitutes Who Catered to G.I.s Decades Ago, Court Says", published on January 20, 2017.

Former prostitutes filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government for creating "a vast network of prostitution in camp towns", for forcing them to cater to American troops, as well as abusing them continuously. These women were kept silent for a few decades because the military governments believed it would be fatal to the alliance South Korea has with the United-States. Scholars believe that the state was terrified at the idea that the American military would leave the country and stop defending it against North Korea. Their fear prompted their idea to have women, sold through human trafficking, cater to the troopers. Amongst the plaintiffs, Park Young-Ja, who was merely a teenager at the time, says that they had to receive a minimum of five troopers every day. They didn't have access to doctors when they were sick but were forced into taking tests and treatment for venereal diseases not for their own health, but to protect their American "clients". When they tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, they were hunted by South Korean officials, put into "monkey houses" and forcefully fed medications. 

The Central District Court in Seoul did not attribute to the 120 plaintiffs what they had sought, which included a government apology in addition to a compensation. Nevertheless, it still ruled for 57 of the victims to each have a sum of $4,240 for the physical and psychological damage caused by their "detention and forced treatment".  The judges did not have enough evidence to prove that the remaining 63 people had also been detained illegally. 

Prostitution has always been and is still currently illegal in South Korea. 

Being a young woman and a strong advocate for women's rights, this case is extremely significant in our fight for the equality of genders. As Kim Jin, a lawyer for the women said, "the verdict on Friday was [...] the first official acknowledgment that women in the camp towns had been subjected to illegal treatment." I have always had the knowledge that women in Asia had it very difficult, but never genuinely looked deeper into it. I learned at a very young age, through my Asian parents, that men were the main providers of the family and therefore, women were inferior. Especially with them changing names after being married, countries all over Asia do not care much for women, which I find ludicrous because we are the ones to help the reproduction and the continuation of our partner's family. As I am learning more and more about this issue that was covered up by the government itself, I am really questioning my trust vis-à-vis worldwide governments and their ability to truly protect their people. The fact that the South Korean government, during World War II, condemned Japan for forcing a group of women to serve its soldiers, but did the same thing is completely hypocritical and so utterly outrageous. The fact that they forced these women, who, some, were sold through human trafficking is completely disheartening. Our fight for women to have equal rights to men is an obvious worldwide neverending battle. 


Here is the link to the original article by Choe Sang-Hun published on January 20th, 2017 in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/world/asia/south-korea-court-comfort-women.html




Your article gives us an interesting outlook on women’s oppression throughout history. It has introduced the reader to the Korean society, and how the women are defined within it; as you have written that the women received no medical aid despite illness, we can conclude they were also dehumanised by the government as disposal tools. I like how you mentioned specifically that Asian women were socially taught to think that they are inferior to men. You wrote that all over Asian women are labeled as inferior, but I cannot entirely agree. I am of various Asian descent, and in some part of my culture what you state is the unavoidable truth. However, in my Hokkien roots, women are considered to be equivalent to men, if not superior. This belief derives from our history because women were known to be courageous and capable when the Hokkien tribes were fleeting from one area to another. It is not only because Hokkien women are historically known to provide for their family that they are well acknowledged by their male counterparts, but also because the men recognise and respect all works categorized as “maternal”— cooking, nurturing, cleaning.

When I read your post I was reminded of another historical event which could possibly relate to this one. During World War 2, Korean women and Chinese women were used as “comfort women” by the Japanese empire, meaning that they were used as prostitutes for the soldiers. Many conflicts between the countries have risen from this horrendous event, but in most cases, the people have said that the issue should be forgotten because it happened during a time of war, hence considered “normal”. Yet, I like to think how because the issue remained unresolved it continued again: history repeats itself. So, as your articles says it, in the 1960’s and 1970’s the government of Korea itself decided to illegally make their own female citizens prostitutes for American soldiers.

I think that your article gives a clear image of how women were treated in the past. Throughout history, women have always been seen as objects, or even more precisely, sex objects. The situation that your article describes perfectly support this fact. The government of South Korea forced and used women to please the American soldiers. In addition, the fact that Korean women were taking tests and treatments not for their own health, but for the health of the American soldiers show that women are seen more inferior compared to men. However, I do not agree with you about women in Asia are more likely to be inferior to men. It is true that some places have severe gender inequalities, but not all the places have the same level of gender inequalities. Women at some places might be taking care of the family and staying home completely, but some others might be in the workplace. As for the example you gave, women change their names after being married, none of my family members did that, so it cannot be generalized. Overall, I think that your subject is really interesting and it makes me think deeply about women place in our society nowadays.


About the author

Naomie Tat currently studies Digital Arts & New Media (2D & 3D Animation) at Champlain College Saint-Lambert. She is a Montreal-born International Baccalaureate program high school graduate.