Former sex workers in fight for compensation
In the eyes of the Korean government, Cheon is one of many underprivileged citizens who receive monthly welfare aid worth 380,000 won ($271), the minimum cost of living that people with no income get from the state.
But Cheon says the Korean government owes her more because her life was irrevocably turned upside down by the turbulence of modern Korean history.
During the chaotic and impoverished months following the cessation of hostilities of the Korean War (1950-1953), Cheon began working as a yangbuin, a term coined by locals for Korean bargirls and sex workers at major American camptowns, or gijichon in Korean.
Gijichon sprang up across Korea around 1945 when U.S. troops arrived here to begin their post-World War II occupation. The primary function of these brothels was to provide sexual services for U.S. soldiers in a controllable, confined area, a move seen to also protect local women from the American military men.
Camptown prostitution and related businesses on the Korean Peninsula contributed to nearly 25 percent of the Korean GNP, according to Katharine Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, in a 2002 study.
According to Cheon, the Korean government supported the camptown brothels, hoping the industry would boost regional economies.
In fact, recent studies here by scholars and nongovernmental agencies have suggested that the Korean government helped build and maintain the brothels after the Korean War, supporting the claims of women like Cheon.
Cheon is now working with 60 other women, all surviving sex workers in their late 60s and 70s who are retired and have settled in the small township of Anjeong-ri near Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, a military base on the outskirts of Seoul still noted for clubs that hire Russian and Filipino sex workers.
The women recently put together an in-depth survey of the conditions of former sex workers in Gyeonggi, where several major U.S. military bases and camptowns are concentrated, in collaboration with academics and lawmakers. The survey, funded by the Gyeonggi provisional government, is the first governmental-scale investigation into military prostitution.
“I’ve got no excuse because I came here of my own will,” says Cheon, who came to Anjeong-ri in 1966. “But I remember how the government authorities hopped around from one club to another and taught us how to deal with G.I.s. They called us patriots and civil diplomats at the time, because we were helping to earn foreign currency and improve the U.S.-Korea alliance. Now, they even let passing children treat us like dirt.”
After the Korean War broke out, Cheon, aged 11, crossed the Daedong River with her parents and five brothers from her home in North Korea to escape to Seoul. On the journey, she got separated from her family, and for three days, she lived off melon peel that she found on the streets.
Twice, Cheon tried to kill herself in the brothel by drinking pesticide, she said. Each time, she failed.
When she retired in 1988, the year Korea held the Olympics, a thyroid problem had virtually wrecked her entire nervous system and her pelvis was fractured from osteoporosis. Without any income, she moved to her current house, a small half-basement room where there is barely enough space for a bed and cabinet. For this, she pays 100,000 won a month.
When the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul relocates to Pyeongtaek by 2013, Cheon reckons there will be no places left for women like her. The landowners will demolish the area’s rundown houses and build flashy high-rises to boost their rent and accommodate the military, Cheon says.
“Many women worked at camptown brothels because of serious health issues and poverty,” said Sin Eun-joo, a professor of social work at Pyeongtaek University, who conducted the survey. “Historically, they were misrepresented as symbols of anti-Americanism, women who polluted the nation’s image. That’s why they have been excluded and controlled by society.”
A study by Lee Na-young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, found the Korean government regularly ran medical checkups, and set up programs to regulate sexually transmitted diseases at the camptown brothels. In her thesis, Lee references venereal disease reports released by the U.S. military’s Korean headquarters, noting several instances in which infected women were forcibly isolated and locked up in a jail until they were treated.
Lee estimates that 11 percent of the total Gyeonggi population was engaged in military prostitution in the 1960s.
The study also claims that the Korean government revised the local Tourism Promotion Act in 1961, registering all G.I. clubs on military bases as “special tourist businesses,” and granted free tax benefits for alcoholic beverages. These clubs were required to make a monthly deposit of $500 to the Bank of Korea, the country’s central bank, as a special “tourism promotion fee,” implying that the Korean government may have benefited from profits made through military prostitution, the report alleges.
“It’s possible that the local authorities have tried to keep the work of these women hidden away,” says Kim Ki-jo, who was the secretary of the U.S.-Korea Status of Forces Agreement team from 1965 to 1967. “U.S. dollars at Korean banks were exchanged at one-fifth the actual rate at that time. The government’s control over foreign currency was very severe, and it was an open secret that dollars gained through the work of these women were larger than any exports.”
In 1973, Kim was a member of a civil military relations subcommittee, a team of officials dispatched by the Korean government and U.S. armed forces to solve racial disputes on the base, activity that included training the Korean sex workers in behavior and manners, he adds.
Scholars and local policy makers say special legislation is needed to guarantee the welfare of former sex workers on the base. Under the current Anti-Prostitution Act, only current sex workers are eligible for government support.
People working on behalf of women like Cheon are looking for solutions with reference to the Korean sex workers forced to serve the Japanese military during World War II. Koreans registered as so-called comfort women receive a one-off government payment worth 43 million won and an 800,000 won monthly stipend. But the public doesn’t view women involved in camptown prostitution in the same way they see the comfort women because camptown sex workers went to work voluntarily.
Another issue that weakens Cheon’s case is that some of the camptown prostitutes were already working in local brothels, which does not bolster the argument that they were victims of the Korean War.
“It’s a subject that still requires more research, because the enemy or the historical context is not as clear as the comfort women,” says Lee Jeong-hee, a Democratic Labor Party lawmaker who is considering putting Cheon’s case into a bill.
“We need to see this issue beyond historical injustice and look at it from the broader perspective of sex trafficking and the individuals involved from the past to present.”
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]