It’s a long-buried part of South Korean history: women compelled by force, trickery or desperation into prostitution, with the complicity of their own leaders.
DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — When Cho Soon-ok was 17 in 1977, three men kidnapped and sold her to a pimp in Dongducheon, a town north of Seoul.
She was about to begin high school, but instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a ballerina, she was forced to spend the next five years under the constant watch of her pimp, going to a nearby club for sex work. Her customers: American soldiers.
The euphemism “comfort women” typically describes Korean and other Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. But the sexual exploitation of another group of women continued in South Korea long after Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945 — and it was facilitated by their own government.
There were “special comfort women units” for South Korean soldiers, and “comfort stations” for American-led U.N. troops during the Korean War. In the postwar years, many of these women worked in gijichon, or “camp towns,” built around American military bases.
Last September, 100 such women won a landmark victory when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered compensation for the sexual trauma they endured. It found the government guilty of “justifying and encouraging” prostitution in camp towns to help South Korea maintain its military alliance with the United States and earn American dollars.
It also blamed the government for the “systematic and violent” way it detained the women and forced them to receive treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
In interviews with The New York Times, six former South Korean camp town women described how their government used them for political and economic gain before abandoning them. Encouraged by the court rulings — which relied on recently unsealed official documents — the victims now aim to take their case to the United States.
“The Americans need to know what some of their soldiers did to us,” said Park Geun-ae, who was sold to a pimp in 1975, when she was 16, and said she endured severe beatings and other abuse from G.I.s. “Our country held hands with the U.S. in an alliance and we knew that its soldiers were here to help us, but that didn’t mean that they could do whatever they wanted to us, did it?”
‘Frontline Warriors in Winning Dollars’
South Korea’s history of sexual exploitation is not always openly discussed. When a sociologist, Kim Gwi-ok, began reporting on wartime comfort women for the South Korean military in the early 2000s, citing documents from the South Korean Army, the government had the documents sealed.
“They feared that Japan’s right wing would use it to help whitewash its own comfort women history,” said Ms. Kim, referring to historical feuds between Seoul and Tokyo over sexual slavery.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, South Korea trailed the North in military and economic power. American troops stayed in the South under the U.N. flag to guard against the North, but South Korea struggled to keep U.S. boots on the ground.
In 1961, Gyeonggi Province, the populous area surrounding Seoul, considered it “urgent to prepare mass facilities for comfort women to provide comfort for U.N. troops or boost their morale,” according to documents submitted to the court as evidence. The local government gave permits to private clubs to recruit such women to “save budget and earn foreign currency.” It estimated the number of comfort women in its jurisdiction at 10,000 and growing, catering to 50,000 American troops.
When President Richard M. Nixon announced plans in 1969 to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the government’s effort took on more urgency. The following year, the government reported to Parliament that South Korea was earning $160 million annually through business resulting from the U.S. military presence, including the sex trade. (The country’s total exports at the time were $835 million.)
Some of the women gravitated to camp towns to find a living. Others, like Ms. Cho, were abducted, or lured with the promise of work. A sex act typically cost between $5 and $10 — money the pimps confiscated. Although the dollars didn’t go directly to the government, they entered the economy, which was starved for hard currency.
A South Korean newspaper at the time called such women an “illegal, cancer-like, necessary evil.” But “these comfort women are also frontline warriors in winning dollars,” it said.
Often, newcomers were drugged by their pimps to cope with the shame.
Numbers and Name Tags
Society mostly dismissed such women as yanggalbo, or “whores for the West,” part of the price of maintaining the U.S. military presence in the country after the war.
“The officials who called us patriots sneered behind our back, calling us ‘dollar-earning machines,’” Ms. Park said.
Prostitution was and remains illegal in South Korea, but enforcement has been selective and varied in harshness over time. Camp towns were created in part to confine the women so they could be more easily monitored, and to prevent prostitution and sex crimes involving American G.I.s from spreading to the rest of society. Black markets thrived there as South Koreans clamored for goods smuggled out of U.S. military post-exchange operations, as well as foreign currency.
In 1973, when U.S. military and South Korean officials met to discuss issues in camp towns, a U.S. Army officer said that the Army policy on prostitution was “total suppression,” but “this is not being done in Korea,” according to declassified U.S. military documents.
Instead, the U.S. military focused on protecting troops from contracting venereal disease.
The women described how they were gathered for monthly classes where South Korean officials praised them as “dollar-earning patriots” while U.S. officers urged them to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. The women had to be tested twice a week; those testing positive were detained for medical treatment.
Under rules U.S. military and South Korean officials worked out, camp town women had to carry registration and V.D. test cards and to wear numbered badges or name tags, according to unsealed documents and former comfort women.
The U.S. military conducted routine inspections at the camp town clubs, keeping photo files of the women at base clinics to help infected soldiers identify contacts. The detained included not only women found to be infected, but also those identified as contacts or those lacking a valid test card during random inspections.
They were held in facilities with barred windows and heavily dosed with penicillin. The women interviewed by The Times all remembered these places with dread, recalling colleagues who collapsed or died from penicillin shock.
Shame, Silence and Even Death
South Korea has never come to terms with the story of its camp town women, in part because of the steadfast alliance between Seoul and Washington. The subject remains far more taboo than discussions of the women forced into sexual slavery by Japan.
“We were just like comfort women for the Japanese military,” Ms. Cho said. “They had to take Japanese soldiers and we American G.I.s.”
None of the government documents unsealed in recent years revealed any evidence to suggest that South Korea was directly involved in recruiting the women for American troops, unlike many women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese occupation.
But unlike the victims of the Japanese military — honored as symbols of Korea’s suffering under colonial rule — these women say they have had to live in shame and silence.
South Koreans began to pay more attention to the issue of sexual exploitation in camp towns after a woman named Yun Geum-i was brutally sexually assaulted and viciously murdered by an American soldier in 1992.
Between 1960 and 2004, American soldiers were found guilty of killing 11 sex workers in South Korea, according to a list compiled by the advocacy group Saewoomtuh.
The U.S. military declined to comment on the Supreme Court ruling or the women’s claims. “We do not condone any type of behavior that violates South Korean laws, rules or directives and have implemented good order and discipline measures,” its spokesman, Col. Isaac Taylor, said by email.
A Legacy of Pain
Camp towns faded with South Korea’s rapid economic development.
Though former camp town women want to bring their case to the United States, their legal strategy there is unclear, as is what recourse they may find.
In a psychiatric report that Ms. Park submitted to the South Korean court in 2021 as evidence, she compared her life with “walking constantly on thin ice” out of fear that others might learn about her past. Her arms and thighs show scars from self-inflicted wounds.
Under the South Korean court ruling, Ms. Park and others were each paid between $2,270 and $5,300, which did little to ease their financial distress.
Choi Gwi-ja, 77, fought back tears when she described multiple abortions she and other women endured because of the prejudice against biracial children in South Korea. Her voice quavered recalling women who killed themselves after G.I.s who had taken them as common-law wives subsequently abandoned them and their children.
She recalled how officials once urged the women, many of them illiterate like her, to earn dollars, promising them free apartments in their old age if they would sell their bodies for money at the camp towns. “It was all a fraud,” she said.