Comfort women is a term that dates back to before World War II and describes women who were forced into sexual slavery during conflicts in the Asia Pacific region. Although most articles on the subject only cover the Japanese side of comfort women crimes there were many other nations that indulged in these acts including the United States and South Korea. Professor Jim Auer, former East Asian chief of the U.S. Dept. of Defense, recently expressed his findings and views. According to his article, a 1944 U.S. military investigation concluded that the 20 Korean women it interviewed were “nothing but prostitutes,” who were reasonably well fed and had “plenty of spending money.” And he also emphasized that though Japan did set up a private fund to compensate surviving Korean women in the 90’s, but domestic pressure in South Korea caused a number of these women to decline compensation.
The History of Comfort Women
Comfort women were women that either worked or were forced to work as prostitutes to serve soldiers in various wars throughout Asia from the 1930’s to 1970’s. They came from places such as China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia, but it is estimated that about half of them were from Korea. The exact total figure is unknown and there are conflicting estimations, some as low as 20,000 others say in the hundreds of thousands.
For decades the women who survived kept quiet about their plight because of shame. Comfort women were mentioned in a few documents found after the end of the war. There was no mention of the comfort women issue in the 1960s when Korea and Japan resumed diplomatic relations, either. A few books had been written on the subject in the 1970s but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the story of the comfort women gained any attention.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono began an investigation into the comfort women after documents surfaced from the library of the Self-Defense Ministry documenting the establishment of comfort stations by the Japanese Imperial Army. Survivors came forward to finally tell their stories and the investigation resulted in the release in 1993 of the Kono Statement. The official government statement acknowledged Japanese military’s role in the comfort stations, whether directly or indirectly. In 1995 Japan set up the Asian Women’s Fund partly funded by the government money to pay compensation to the surviving comfort women.
Korea and Comfort Women
Interpreters for U.S. Army Intelligence with released, Korean comfort women in Myitkyina Burma, August 1944
South Korea asked for and received $800 million compensation in the form of an aid and loan package from Japan. Korea has been very vocal in their calls for Japan to formally acknowledge their role in the brutality committed against those comfort women in the face of Japan pushing back against allegations, with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe saying that, while no evidence was found for a fact, that “I am deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors. But South Korea has its own responsibility to answer for in regards to the comfort women issue.
South Korea’s Own Comfort Women Atrocities
During the Korean War (1950-1953) the military established their own comfort stations in the southern part of the peninsula. There were special comfort Stations for the Korean soldiers and U.N. Comfort Stations for the other soldiers in the country at the time, including U.S. soldiers. Women were also trucked to the front lines without authorization to service the soldiers there. Many of the women were married and their husbands had been drafted into the military. As a result, they were coerced into becoming comfort women or lured with jobs in the hope of supporting their families. The Korean government says the comfort women were paid prostitutes and not in service out of coercion. Many of these ‘U.S comfort women’ (as they were later to be known as), however, dispute that this is not true and that they were kept in the stations and forced to sleep with many soldiers against their will.
The Korean military also used comfort women while serving in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. Stories abound of atrocities committed during the war against civilians, including murder and rape. Many of these atrocities have been buried though and the South Korean government has not addressed the victim calls for justice.
Many Vietnamese women who were raped or forced into comfort stations by the Korean military gave birth to children that were abandoned by their fathers and shunned by the Vietnamese. These children are called lai Daihan. “Daihan” is the Vietnamese word for Korean and “lai” is a slur for those with mixed blood. The government of Vietnam has asked South Korea repeatedly to acknowledge their wartime atrocities, including forcing Vietnamese women to work in comfort stations. The Korean government has repeatedly denied these allegations.
Some historians believe that the actions of the Korean government and military are a left-over cultural phenomenon from a previous time, others feel that the South Korean government needs to accept what happened in the past and cannot continue to criticize Japan about this until they do so.
Korean Comfort Women and the U.S. Military
After the Korean War there was a large American military presence in the country due to the continued threat of North Korean aggression. With a number of military bases, many clubs, camps, and bars sprang up around these bases catering to U.S. servicemen. These camps and other businesses offered prostitution, though it was illegal in the country. Koreans referred to these towns as “keejichon” a term for a gray and grubby “army base town” and the women who worked in them became known as “Yankee whores” or “UN ladies.”
By the 1960s the Korean government was registering comfort women as well as sponsoring English-language and etiquette classes in order to make the Americans feel more at home. The government was afraid the U.S. military would pull out, which then U.S. President Jimmy Carter had seriously contemplated, leaving the country vulnerable to North Korean attacks, but they also wanted to cash in on the income generated by the prostitution business. In 1960, two lawmakers in the South Korean National Assembly called on the country’s leadership to train a supply of prostitutes for the allied military, to prevent them from spending their money in Japan instead. During the 1960s prostitution accounted for twenty-five percent of South Korea’s Gross Domestic Product.
In recent years many of these women have grouped together and have begin to take legal action against the South Korean government in a $1.2 million lawsuit. 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.
For decades the Korean government turned a blind eye to the U.S comfort women and outright encouraged these camps and other businesses to operate around American bases. Since the 1990s many of the country’s prostitutes are smuggled in illegally from places like Russia and the Philippines, having their passports confiscated by pimps and other sex brokers and forced to provide sex to soldiers for little money. In many cases they are physically and sexually assaulted and are forced to live in miserable conditions.
There are some who believe, in the wake of protests against the presence of the American military that U.S. commanders helped protect the businesses running the prostitutes. Though this has never been proven, last year the United States Department of State formed a task force to investigate the predicament of women being lured to Korea with promise of work as singers or entertainers, but then being forced into prostitution to work as U.S. comfort women.
Many of the more notorious bars and clubs have recently been deemed off limits to any U.S. military personnel by General Jan-Marc Jouas.
Modern US Comfort Women in South Korea
In the early 1990s prostitution became a symbol for the people’s anti-American military feelings after a woman was found brutally murdered and mutilated near a U.S. military base. Though the case itself didn’t spark the initial outrage, even after the U.S. government paid off the woman’s family, the rape of a school girl by U.S. Marines in Okinawa did.
In the 2000s a number of cases came to light involving the abuse and forced prostitution of women, mainly against club owners who catered to U.S. military personnel. But the punishments were minimal and mostly involved having to pay restitution to the women. Television news programs have done exposes on prostitution and sex trafficking, though the government only made a show of cracking down on the industry.
In June of 2014 a group of 122 women filed suit against the South Korean government claiming they were comfort women, coerced into working as prostitutes and that the government encouraged the practice. The suit, filed with the Seoul Central District Court claims that the government trained the women in etiquette and the English language and worked with pimps and sex brokers to prepare the women for servicing American troops stationed in South Korea during the 1960s. It also claims that the women were periodically rounded up against their will by the government and tested for sexually transmitted diseases. If they were found to be infected, or if infection was even suspected, the women were forcibly quarantined for months at a time in medical facilities. However, no one is claiming that members of the government actually acted as pimps merely that they allowed the situation to operate. The lawsuit is the work of a number of human rights organizations who investigated the use of comfort women by Korea.
Cho Myung-ja, age 76, was one of the coerced comfort women and a plaintiff in the lawsuit who says about her life, “It was a hard life and we got sick. To make sure we didn’t pass on some disease to foreigners, we were tested twice a week, and if it looked abnormal, we would be locked up on the fourth floor, unlocking the door only at meal times, and some people broke their legs trying to escape.”
Kim Sook-ja, age 70 and another former prostitute says, “They say we were patriots at the time, but now they couldn’t care less. We didn’t fight with guns or bayonets but we worked for the country and earned dollars.”
Kim Kyeong-sun worked as a hostess and prostitute and ended up addicted to drugs and pregnant with a daughter who is half American. She says it wasn’t entirely the fault of the soldiers because many of them were young and naïve. She blames the government for encouraging the practice, protecting the pimps and club owners, and for preparing the girls for the hard life they would have.
The issue is not without controversy. There are critics who say the women were paid prostitutes and have no right taking the “comfort woman” label, that by doing so they are trying to gain sympathy by associating their circumstances to that of the 200,000 women who were abused during past conflicts in Asia.
“They could have assumed—I have no proof—that there might be public sympathy or understanding, since the ‘comfort women’ issue is well-known nationally and internationally. But I think it was a mistake to choose that term. It undercuts the comfort women or jeongsindae case and confuses the public,” said Katherine Moon, Korea studies chair at the Brookings Institute and author of Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in Korea-U.S. Relations. “My guess is that they chose to frame the U.S comfort women and military prostitution issue to ride the coattails of the Japanese jeongsindae movement.”
Behind this suing movement in Seoul by “comfort women for the U.S. and Korean military forces” during the Korean War and thereafter, there may lie a sense of exuberance euphoria among the Koreans which they acquired through a campaign about “comfort women for the Japanese military” during and before WWII with a support in some parts of the U.S. advocated by Korean-Americans. Actually, in some U.S. cities, with a backing by the local assembly, local Korean people’s campaign for “comfort women for Japanese” was culminated as a constructing statute.
The women are seeking compensation of $10,000.00 U.S. dollars but they say what’s more important is that they receive an apology from the Korean government and acknowledgment of what was done to them. The women are also seeking an official investigation into their allegations of coerced prostitution. So far the South Korean government has refused to comment on the U.S comfort women case.
What’s ironic is that for years the South Korean government has been one of the loudest and most persistent voices in seeking Japan’s acknowledgment and apology for their treatment of women, particularly Korean women, during the war. They have demanded compensation twice and have supported the surviving comfort women who have come forward seeking justice. And in the U.S. continent, Korean-American people stepped up their anti-Japan campaign such as constructing a women’s statue with support of the local government and assemblies.
Yet, they refuse to acknowledge their involvement in establishing comfort stations, using their own women to populate them. The hope for many is that the lawsuit will lead to an investigation into Korea’s own history of.