When she was young, Kim Yeon-ja bellowed like a man so no one would look down on her. She also dressed like a man to get a “masculine” job more easily in the days when women still carried sheathed knives ― not for protection, but to kill themselves if someone attempted to steal their virginity.
Ms. Kim, now 63, still speaks in a loud, strong voice. Despite the 25-year period of her life she once hid from her friends and family, she is poised and confident.
Ms. Kim was a prostitute, roaming the towns that developed around the U.S. military bases in South Korea. She was the first such “military prostitute” to publicly acknowledge her status, and she recently published a 300-page autobiographical essay describing in detail what some would view as quite disturbing.
“One broadcaster came to me, rolling his camera and asking me to weep, so I would look sorry and sad for his documentary film,” Ms. Kim said. “Why should I, when I am neither sorry nor sad?” she scoffed. “I had chosen to become a prostitute in the first place, I chose to quit a long time ago and now I am living proudly trying to help former prostitutes like myself.”
There are no accurate data on the number of prostitutes serving members of the U.S. military, but a report by Durebang, a civic group that provides assistance to prostitutes, estimates that there are 300,000 nationwide, a seven-fold increase from the 1960s. This includes such job categories as bar hostesses.
Ms. Kim maintained her equanimity as she spoke of her past. “These days people are careful to refer to what I did as the ‘sex trade,’ but I am more comfortable with words like prostitution and whorehouses, because that’s what I did and where I was,” she wrote at the beginning of her book, entitled “The Big Sister in America Town Bawls Until the Last Five Minutes Before Her Death.” America Town is a red light district in Gunsan, a military base in the south of the country and one of the places where Ms. Kim worked.
She said it would be ironic to tell young girls now to not get involved in prostitution, or to get out of the business, since it took her 25 years to return to an ordinary life with her mother, who is now 97 years old.
It took another 12 years before she could publish her book. She was worried that she would embarrass people around her, including her high school alumni, who sarcastically asked her, “Couldn’t you think at least of becoming a street vendor if you were that desperate for money?”
If there was an excuse for Ms. Kim to start selling sex, it was her gloomy childhood. Her father was a womanizer, who had “different wives and children in every province of the nation.” She was her mother’s only child and had to work to support her parent.
In 1954, when she was 11, a cousin raped her. She was raped again as a teenager. After graduating from high school, she became pregnant, but paid a nurse to kill the child after giving birth. She said she was unable to abort the fetus because her pregnancy was too far advanced before she realized she was pregnant.
She lived with guilt. She wanted to flee her hometown of Geomundo, a remote island in the South Sea. But she kept her adolescent period a secret ― even from her mother ― until she decided to write her book.
No one knew about her life. She had always been the taller, stronger and braver one in the town. She was chosen to lead anti-government student demonstrations in the early 1960s because of her booming voice.
But having grown tired of the provincial life, she left home in 1962, moving to Seoul, where she hoped to earn a lot of money.
She worked as a “bus girl,” collecting tokens from bus passengers. But she was fired after she protested the daily physical inspections imposed by her employer, who thought the girls were stealing tokens.
She then disguised herself as a man to work as a shoeshine boy near Seoul Station, a decision she made so she would not have to worry about being sexually harassed.
But she was running out of money and had no decent place to live. An elderly woman told her to leave the area because it was dangerous for a woman to meander around train stations alone. The woman warned her, “You could be sold off to brothels while you are asleep here.”
The woman recommended that Ms. Kim go to a shelter in Daebang-dong, western Seoul. When she followed the woman’s advice, she found herself locked in a shelter for runaway female adolescents and former prostitutes.
There, she made friends and learned that she could be “rich” by becoming a yang gongju, or “Western princess,” an outdated term referring to prostitutes in the vicinity of U.S. Army bases. If she was lucky, she could date a Westerner and get married and immigrate to the United States, her friends told her.
“I never wanted to get married. I was sick of men by then,” Ms. Kim said. “But I was tempted to live freely, to earn more money.”
So her life as a yang gongju started. She spent her early 20s in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi province, near Camp Casey, the former home of the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Division. In 1971, when the division returned to the United States, she and other prostitutes moved to Songtan, Pyeongtaek, near Osan Air Base.
She said government officials often came down to Songtan to give special lectures. They praised the girls as “true patriots,” or “good people who reaped dollars.”
“Prostitution may have always been illegal in Korea, but it was the other way around for us,” Ms. Kim said. “They [the Korean government] advised us to stay clean [of diseases] so soldiers who came to help Korea would be happy.”
As a matter of fact, former President Chun Doo Hwan, in cooperation with the U.S. military, launched the “Base Community Clean-Up Campaign,” a comprehensive plan for the “purification” of foreign military base areas, sponsoring etiquette lessons and more frequent medical treatment in order to improve relationships between the sex workers and the GIs.
“Because of that program, we were forced to spread our legs in front of ‘doctors’ without licenses. My friends died after getting a simple antibiotic shot. If we refused to lay down in front of them, they beat us and locked us up,” Ms. Kim said.
She said the women wore “tags like a dog,” when they were certified to be free of disease.
But it was not until she saw two of her friends murdered by a GI named “Steven” that she decided to start unionized action, which led her to think that prostitution would not help her achieve what she wanted.
Even though she and her friends alleged it was “Steven” who had killed the women, the Korean and American authorities said there was not enough evidence. Similar cases angered them. They held protests against U.S. soldiers who mistreated them, and against their brothel owners who forced them to follow the soldiers to their mountain training with only a blanket in their arms. But no media outlets reported on military prostitution or military crimes.
The issue of criminal acts by the U.S, military began to rise in 1992 when Yoon Geum-yi, a Korean bar waitress at a military club, was brutally killed. Activists then brought public attention to the issue, and anti-American sentiment grew. But Ms. Kim remained doubtful.
“There were dozens of girls who died before Yoon Geum-yi died. But no one ever tried to help us when we called for help,” she said. “I felt that Yoon Geum-yi was just used as a tool for anti-American protests.”
After she saw her friends Tae-ja and Sun-hui die, both for unknown reasons, the deaths of four others followed. Some died from intoxication, some in a fire that a soldier allegedly set, and some committed suicide. “But God, I want to live,” she found herself helplessly praying.
In the mid-1980s, she attended a church. She never had anyone to talk to, so she and her friends found the act of giving testimony and praying out loud fun. But their neighbors didn’t. People refused to attend the same church with the prostitutes. So they created a church of their own ― in a tent. Ms. Kim moved her belongings into the tent, threw out the bed she had been using for two decades, and stopped selling sex.
She talked others out of prostitution as well and started attending theology school. The news spread, and women’s rights advocates visited her to encourage her. She followed activists to the United States to speak at international seminars. An independent film director made a documentary about her life. She opened up her home (where she now lives with her mother) to babysit “Amerasians,” interracial children whose fathers abandoned them.
Choi Geum-sun, one of the founders of the “tent church,” lives with Ms. Kim in Songtan. Ms. Choi married an American soldier and moved to Florida. They had two children there, but soon divorced and she returned to Korea. She had nowhere to go, and sought out Ms. Kim.
“If I talk to you, would my children see this story and find me here?” Ms. Choi asked.
Ms. Kim said 15 years have passed since she started helping former prostitutes, but there has not been much change in the situation. One difference is that the younger prostitutes are now mostly from the Philippines or Russia. According to Durebang, the civic group, foreign prostitutes account for 90 percent of the females involved in Korean military prostitution.
No accurate data on the current situation of military prostitutes is available. A Pyongtaek city official said she “assumed former prostitutes lived on government subsidies.” She added she that has not heard of foreign prostitutes working there.
“I get really angry sometimes seeing that problems still seem to be repeated,” Ms. Kim said. “I tell myself I shouldn’t get angry because I am a Christian now, but help is desperately needed for these poor women.”
She said the former prostitutes have a hard time getting decent jobs. The luckier ones work as club waitresses or as maids.
“I pray every day that things will get better, but it would be too much to expect any big improvement to occur,” Ms. Kim said. “We have been always left alone.”
by Lee Min-a