South Korea, the United States Military and Camptown Women

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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A recent news item from South Korea received almost no traction in the global news media and no mention whatsoever (that I can find) in the United States mainstream media.

According to an article on the English version of Hankyoreh (translation – The Korean Nation), an independent, shareholder-owned South Korea daily newspaper, we find the following:

south korea, the united states military and camptown women

According to the news item, on February 8, 2018, Seoul’s High Court ruled on February 8, 2018 acknowledged that South Korea had actively encouraged prostitution in military camp towns adjacent to U.S. military operations as follows:

“According to official Ministry of Health and Welfare documents, [the state] actively encouraged the women in the military camptowns engage in prostitution to allow foreign troops to ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy sexual services’ with them.

“In the process, [the state] operated and managed the military camp towns with the intention or purpose of contributing to maintenance of a military alliance essential for national security by ‘promoting and boosting morale’ among foreign troops while mobilizing prostitutes for economic goals such as acquisition of foreign currency.

The state actively encouraged and justified acts of prostitution within the military camp towns through patriotic education praising prostitutes as ‘patriots who bring in foreign currency.”

The first time that a South Korean judge acknowledged that South Korea was responsible for prostitution at United States military camp towns, commercial zones that were set up around U.S. bases in Korea, was back in January 2017 when Judge Jeon Ji-won of the Central District Court in Seoul admitted that “a serious human rights violation” had taken place and that “it should never have happened and should never be repeated”. 

Let’s look at some background information on South Korea’s state-sanctioned prostitution with United States military personnel.  A fascinating paper by Na-Young Lee and Jae Kyung Lee entitled “History of U.S. Camptown Prostitution in South Korea and Challenges of Women’s Oral History” takes a closer look at this aspect of Korean history which has been forced out of Korea’s consciousness.  According to the paper, Korean people have 

…long treated them as pariah, dirty trash, and/or fallen women, calling them highly derogatory names such as yanggalbo (Western whore) and yanggongju (Western princess)…

First, let’s put the legacy of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War into perspective.  After the war which ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, there was extreme privation and degradation in South Korea.  South Korea’s economy was in tatters, facing approximately $3 billion in property damage and destruction of much of the nation’s infrastructure.  The only stable legacy of the Korean War was the establishment of camptowns which formed adjacent to U.S. military bases.  After the United States and the Republic of Korea signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in November 1954, military prostitution began to be organized into a “R and R” (rest and relaxation) system as part of system of 18 camptowns that developed a symbiotic relationship with nearby American military bases.  As a result of the crushing poverty in South Korea, many women who had lost their entire families and who suffered from both poverty and hunger, made the difficult decision to turn to prostitution with U.S. military personnel in order to survive.  Despite the fact that prostitution was illegal, the South Korean government did little to actually enforce its own laws out of fear of losing their American protectors.  The women who were referred to as “comfort women” were taught to “live with pride” and were labelled as “personal ambassadors” by government officials despite the fact that they were treated as pariahs by South Korean society.    Former comfort women state that the South Korean government sponsored classes teaching them rudimentary English and etiquette so that they would be more attractive to American soldiers.  Camptown prostitution flourished into the 1960s as the Korean government, a military junta under Park Chung Hee, shifted from a tacit permission to permissive promotion policy regarding camptown prostitution; this led to the further development of business opportunities associated with adjacency to a U.S. military base.  The rapid development of camptowns turned farm villages into commercial districts with clubs, bars and other enterprises catering to American soldiers.  In the 1960s, research shows that there was one South Korean prostitute for every two or three U.S. soldiers and, in some cases, women in camptowns reported that the number of women was almost the same as the number of soldiers.

The camptown economy was very important to the South Korean government in the post-war period; it enabled South Korea to earn foreign currency with U.S. troops contributing roughly 25 percent of South Korea’s Gross National Product in the 1960s.  In 1969 alone, roughly 46,000 Korean camptown workers earned $70 million.

In July 1969, the Nixon doctrine signalled that the United States would withdraw one-third of its troops by the end of 1971.  Koreans were extremely concerned that the United States would abandon it entirely and that Communism North Korea would invade once again.  In the period between 1970 and 1980, the Park government changed its philosophy and actively supported the camptown system.  In 1970, one study from Kyonggi Province estimated that the comfort women earned enough money to support an average of four family members; this meant that the withdrawal of even a single U.S. soldier would have wide-ranging negative impacts on the Korean economy.  This sense of crisis caused the Park government to classify camptown prostitution as an integral part of South Korea’s economic growth and national defense.  In 1971, Park established the Base Community Clean-up Committee (BCCUC), a committee with a policy of “purification” for U.S. military camp areas in a move to prevent venereal diseases from spreading among U.S. soldiers.   Women that tested positive for STDs were interred in segregated facilities and were administered penicillin without their consent as part of South Korea’s attempts to woo American military protection.  Here is a quote from the paper:

Called for patriotic service through selling sex, women became subject to intensive government control and indoctrinated in intensive education regarding “good conduct” and proper “etiquette” to induce more G.I.s. In the so-called “education class” held in either at local government office or at health center, the importance to improve women’s behavior and to prevent VD was emphasized.

Women were forced to take a STD test up to twice a week and to carry a STD identification card which could be spot-checked by Korean authorities.  Women who were selected for random STD checks and who did not have a health card were fined and if they could not afford to pay the fine, they were imprisoned for five to seven days.  Women who tested positive for STDs were imprisoned until they had recovered completely and were administered penicillin without their consent as part of South Korea’s attempts to retain American military protection..

The camptown prostitution system is still in existence but the majority of prostitutes today are from nations other than South Korea, with the majority now coming from the Philippines. 

In June 2014, 122 former comfort women filed a lawsuit demanding a government apology and compensation for their detention, seeking damages of 10 million won or $8900 for each woman.   Here is how the lawsuit was reported on the Library of Congress website:

south korea, the united states military and camptown women

Here is a news video about the lawsuit:

YouTube player

In the 2017 ruling, 57 of the plaintiffs were awarded 5 million won which worked out to a rather paltry sum of $4,240 each, far less than they had sought.

In the 2018 ruling, Hon. Judge Lee Beom-gyun of Seoul’s High Court ruled that 74 of the 117 former comfort women should receive 7 million won or $6370 and the remaining 43 women would receive 3 million won or $2730, still a very small settlement for what can only be regarded as a breach of basic human rights.

Just in case you thought the connection between the U.S. military and prostitution in South Korea, here is a video trailer from a 1996 movie, “The Women Outside” showing that comfort women are still in place for American servicemen:

One thing is certain, women have played a painful and costly role in Korean geopolitics since the early 1950s, an unintended consequence of the Cold War mentality.

Click HERE to view more.

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1 Comment

  1. I was a military wife in 1967. My husband was stationed near the DMZ & enjoyed the comfort women in the bars in Yongji-gol during his tour of duty. His infidelity with the prostitutes nearly ended our marriage and there are times when I wish I had divorced him in 1967 when he returned from Korea. To find out that the U.S. government and the South Korean government was doing everything possible to encourage my husband to have sex with prostitutes in dirty little back rooms in dirty little bars is overwhelmingly sad to me and makes me even more angry than my husband's decision to have sex with prostitutes during our marriage. He was only 20 years old when the Army decided Korea was a good place for him. Now I know why. 

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