South Korea’s notorious red-light zone. (Photo: Asia News)
Welcome to the Monkey House: Confronting the ugly legacy of military prostitution in South Korea
(December 2, 2019) — Locals call it the Monkey House. The decaying, three-story cement fortress sits among weeds in the wooded, hilly outskirts of Dongducheon, a Korean city of 96,000 that encircles Camp Casey, the closest US military base to North Korea and home to key elements of the US Army’s 2nd Infantry Division.
The 2ID is “the only forward-based Army division integrated with Allied troops” in Korea, President Trump proudly declared to US service members after his highly publicized crossing of the DMZ on June 30 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
For those who live in Dongducheon, however, the base and surrounding town hold a mixed and painful legacy. Between the end of the Korean War and the early 1990s, more than one million Korean women were caught up in a state-controlled prostitution industry that was blessed at the highest levels by the US military. They worked in special zones surrounding US bases—areas licensed by the South Korean government, reserved exclusively for American troops, and monitored and policed by the US Army. These camp towns were known to the Koreans as kichijong.
The system was designed to strengthen the US-South Korean alliance, which was formalized in a 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty; its less formal mission was to boost morale for the thousands of US military personnel stationed on the peninsula after the Korean War.
It was the same for South Korea, where prostitution was encouraged as a woman’s patriotic duty to the state. Dongducheon, with some 7,000 registered prostitutes at its height, was the largest of the kichijong, and the strip of camp towns stretching from the DMZ down to Seoul was known as “GI Heaven.” For the Korean women in the camp towns, though, it was hell.
Prostitution and sex-trafficking was rampant in South Korea
The Monkey House Was a Virtual Prison for Sex Workers
The Monkey House was a virtual prison for sex workers. It was built during a series of camp-town “cleanup” campaigns first launched by the South Korean government and the Pentagon in the 1960s. Their object was to ensure the sexual hygiene of American troops; rates of venereal disease among the GIs in South Korea were then far above the norm for American military installations in Japan and Europe. (In June 1971, a US Army study found that 568 out of every 1,000 soldiers in Korea were infected with VD, compared to 111 per 1,000 worldwide.)
Korean and US security forces combed through the towns searching for women suspected of carrying STDs. Once in custody at the Monkey House, the women were inspected, shot up with penicillin supplied by the US military, and confined inside its walls until they were “cured.” Then they were sent back to service their American customers.
Choi Hee-shin, a 49-year-old community organizer who grew up in Dongducheon, explained how the building got its name. The bar girls and prostitutes were pumped so full of antibiotics that “their arms hung down, and they walked like this, like monkeys in a cage,” she told me, as she let her thin shoulders sag and her wrists dangle down near her knees. Many of the women overdosed, and some of them died, she said; a few of them are buried in a nearby graveyard built especially for sex workers.
The plight of women confined within these medical jails is the subject of a chilling graphic on the wall. The painting depicts the Monkey House and a giant vaginal inspection tool in front of a replica of a renowned image of three service members from the US-controlled United Nations Command that still hangs inside Seoul’s Ministry of Defense. The source painting was commissioned as a tribute to the 16 countries that came to South Korea’s aid in 1950, but the grim repurposed image highlights the underside of the country’s long dependence on the United States.
For anyone even casually versed in the long-standing US-Korean alliance, this visual juxtaposition of state power and casual sexual predation pulls you up short. It’s like a silent scream against US military power and sexual domination. “Lots of people are ashamed of what happened in the camp towns, and want to forget,” Choi said. “But people like me, we can’t forget. The US-South Korean alliance depended on these comfort women.”
Militarized prostitution and the subjugation of women around US bases are but two of the darker features of the US partnership with South Korea that most Americans—especially after years of tension with North Korea—know of only haphazardly, if at all. While in the US sphere of influence, the southern half of this divided country has lived through two bloody counterinsurgencies, in 1948 and 1980, while enduring decades of US backing for authoritarian governments.
Yet, outside of places like Dongducheon, where activists and artists have memorialized the struggles of South Korean camp-town women, their searing and sometimes violent experiences in the industry are a distant memory, much like the Korean War itself. This is, after all, a youthful, male-dominated society with a strong nationalist streak.
A former camp-town prostitute named Bae holds a photo of herself in her twenties. Jean Chung/The New York Times/Redux
Their arguments for reparations are based on a landmark lawsuit filed in 2014 by Ha and the Seoul-based Lawyers for a Democratic Society on behalf of 122 former sex workers. They seek compensation and damages from the South Korean government, and have already won a partial victory. Last year, Lee Beom-gyun, a judge on an appellate court in Seoul, agreed that the South Korean government actively encouraged prostitution to boost ties with the United States.
In a sweeping decision in February 2018, Lee ruled that the Korean state “operated and managed” the military camp towns to contribute to the “maintenance of a military alliance essential for national security” and abetted the industry “through patriotic education praising prostitutes as ‘patriots who bring in foreign currency.’”
He directly referenced the Monkey House detention facilities, and concluded that the government had violated the human rights of its citizens. Specifically, he denounced the practice of segregating “camp town prostitutes in forced internment facilities or through the indiscriminate administration of penicillin, which carries serious physical side effects.” Lee ordered the government to pay compensation ranging from $2,700 to $6,400 to the surviving 117 plaintiffs—a rough total of $560,000.
The case now awaits a ruling from South Korea’s Supreme Court. Based on Lee’s decision and the testimony of the former sex workers and other experts during the trial, said Ha, “we can demand US co-responsibility” for the state-run system and the forced detentions of Korean women. Yet despite Lee’s landmark ruling, the South Korean government has never formally recognized its own role in the militarized sex industry or the state’s impingement on the rights of Korean women. Nor, of course, has the United States.
Last summer, I visited Dongducheon, where the footprint of the American-led camp-town economy in South Korea is now visibly receding. The US Army installation lies along a river valley in the picturesque Gwangju Mountain Range near the border with North Korea; it was the scene of the first battles of the Korean War, when Kim Il Sung sent Russian tanks through this corridor in his march to Seoul.
The base complex stretches from the main gate of Camp Casey to many of the outlier bases that were once part of the 2ID. In 2004, to the shock of city residents, about half of the division was deployed virtually overnight to Iraq; over the past two years, much of the division, including its headquarters, has moved to Camp Humphreys, the massive US military base in the city of Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of Seoul.
The only 2ID unit left at Camp Casey is the 210th Field Artillery Brigade, which now houses about 4,800 US soldiers and 500 South Koreans, according to Junel Jeffrey, a 2ID spokeswoman. In its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the entertainment district around the base was filled with bars, restaurants, and clubs decorated with garish neon advertising designed to pull in the GIs stationed so far from home. But as the US presence has dwindled, the city is now just a shadow of its former self.
I arrived one morning via subway from Seoul with Bridget Martin, a geographer at UC Berkeley who researches the politics of land and development in the areas around US military bases in Korea. After a brief tour of the downtown—still known as “the ville” to the Americans—we met up with Choi Hee-shin at a small strip mall. As the three of us got acquainted, a low-flying South Korean F-16 jet buzzed the city. That was a little unusual, I was told; but all day long, drones launched from a small installation near Camp Casey flew overhead, reminding us that this country is still in a state of war.
Back in the office, Choi brought out old maps and books as we discussed the history of the town. Our conversation was translated by Jun Bum Sun, an off-duty Korean soldier and rock-and-roll musician who was serving at the time as one of the 500 KATUSA—or members of the Korean Augmentation to the US Army—at Camp Casey. As we sipped soft drinks and tea, Choi and Sun recounted the recent history of the town and the sex industry it sustained.
“Lots of people are ashamed of what happened in the camp towns, and want to forget. But people like me, we can’t forget.”
Like much else in modern Korea, the conditions that spawned the sex-work alliance with the US military date back to the trauma of the war with the North from 1950 to 1953. By the end of that conflict, sustained and vicious fighting and US Air Force firebombing had left both sides of the Korean Peninsula a smoldering wreck. South Korea was reeling from poverty, and sank into a chaotic state of political and social inertia as it adapted to its postwar status as a US client state.
In total, the war claimed more than four million Korean fatalities, more than half of which were civilians, which translated into millions of widows and orphans; meanwhile, partition with the North created a bleak legacy of divided families throughout the country. I lived in Seoul from 1959 to 1961 and vividly remember from my parents’ tenure there as Christian relief workers the shocking conditions of a country ripped apart by war.
It was amid these postwar conditions of acute displacement and destruction that the military camp towns sprouted up. The “overwhelming majority” of prostitutes in the camp towns were either orphans or abandoned children, Wellesley Professor Katharine H.S. Moon wrote in Sex Among Allies, her groundbreaking history of military prostitution in South Korea.
The sex workers in the camp towns typically experienced a combination of “poverty, low-class status, physical, sexual and emotional abuse even before entering the kichijong world.” Once inside, “they were no longer treated as a person but as merchandise,” Kim Tae-jung, a counselor at Durebang, the support group for sex workers, explained at the forum in New York.
Eventually, the camp-town industry bulked up into a nationwide franchise operation. Kichijong zones were established around 31 US Army, Air Force, and Navy bases in South Korea. In Gyonggi province, which extends from south of Seoul up to the DMZ and was home to the majority of US bases, some 10,000 sex workers were registered every year from 1953 to the late 1980s.
They were part of a major industry: Moon estimates in her book that at the peak of US troop strength in the 1980s, the kichijong economy contributed 5 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product. In Dongducheon in the early 1970s, “1 percent of the GDP was made here,” said Choi. “It was overflowing with money. But it was short-term profit for Seoul investors, so the money flowed out of town.”
Like Choi, many of the Koreans who seek justice for camp-town sex workers refer to them as “comfort women”—an especially charged designation. That term traditionally refers to Korean women whom the Japanese Imperial Army kidnapped and forced to work in military brothels called “comfort stations” during World War II.
In Korea, North and South, the survivors of that system are living symbols of the country’s 35 years of subjugation to Japanese colonialism. And, due to Japan’s conservative ruling party’s refusal to fully admit its military’s role in enslaving the comfort women and importing forced laborers from Korea, the topic remains a source of deep tension between South Korea and Japan that recently escalated into a full-fledged trade war and Seoul’s cancellation of an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo. (Japan’s war crimes have also become a political issue in the United States, where, much to the chagrin of the Japanese government, memorials to Japan’s comfort women have been built in 10 cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.)
By and large, however, the Korean public has refrained from treating the kichijong women as victims of a heartless imperial power, in the manner of the comfort women. Instead, many Koreans see the camp-town prostitutes as “fallen women bringing shame to the nation,” said Park Jeong-mi, a professor at Chungbuk National University who was an expert witness in the 2014 lawsuit against the South Korean government. But Park argues that this sentiment is misleading and unfair, and in her research she has found a direct historical link between the Japanese and American systems that supplied Korean women to their troops. This key connection clearly undermines the long-standing Korean perception of US-brokered military prostitution as a system of more-or-less voluntary labor, prompting moral disapproval and public shaming within the traditional Korean patriarchy.
During the years of direct US occupation from 1945 to 1948, the US military government created an administrative state that was dominated by Koreans who had collaborated with Japan’s colonial rulers. The leaders of this first occupying regime outlawed prostitution, but got around the prohibition by building brothels for US troops.
These outposts were dubbed “comfort stations” after the Japanese wartime model, according to documents Park recently unearthed from South Korea’s Ministry of Health. The shift from Japanese- to American-coerced sex work was an easy transition, she said: “High-ranking Korean officials who served under Japanese colonial rule were familiar with the comfort station system.”
Park also found US documents showing that, after the Korean War, American commanders rejected the idea of the Korean state running brothels as the Japanese military had done. Instead, they did what future generations of the military would practice in Iraq and Afghanistan: They privatized military functions—in this case, the provision of sex workers to American troops. Under US pressure, Park said, the Republic of Korea (ROK) government licensed the bars and clubs that, in turn, hired the women who entertained the US troops. She likens those establishments to “de facto brothels.”
But much as had been the case with the Japanese comfort stations, the Korean brothel owners permitted vanishingly little agency for their sex-work recruits. If the comfort women for Japan were kidnap victims, the US camp-town women were victims of sustained economic coercion—much like indentured servants or tenant farmers. Once they were recruited to the camp towns, women found themselves trapped.
They carried out their sex work in rooms they had to rent from the bar owners. They also had to buy all their supplies, including their bed, their clothes, and the phonographs they set up to entertain their American clients. “From the get-go, you have a pile of debt,” Choi said. “You try to pay your way out, but it’s a never-ending story.”
The distinction between the American kichijong and the Japanese comfort-women regimes became still blurrier at the day-to-day operational level, according to the testimony now assembled from former kichijong workers. Sun, my Korean military translator, stressed this same continuity in our talks. Sun, who sometimes patrolled downtown Dongducheon while working as a KATUSA, homed in on the coercive traits that both sex-work regimes share in common.
“Most women who were there at the camp town, really it wasn’t their will,” he explained. “Many were orphans and unfortunate in their economic situation, and many were stopped from leaving when they were thrown into the Monkey House. They were forced to be there.… It was clearly a government-regulated and -sponsored sex trade to appease the Americans’ sexual need. So the methods were quite similar.”
Protesters burn an effigy of US President George W. Bush in response to the 2002 incident in which an American military vehicle crushed two 14-year-old girls to death. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty
This is increasingly evident as more details of the camp-town economy’s history become public. As the kichijong system took off in the 1950s, the US and ROK governments set up an elaborate policing system to supervise the conduct and health of sex workers. By 1957, according to documents Park found in the US National Archives, US Forces Korea (USFK) was holding periodic conferences with the Korean government and the Korean National Police to manage the camp-town centers.
American military officials also joined forces with Korean police to patrol the camp towns for unlicensed and untested prostitutes; the first isolation stations for camp-town women suspected of spreading STDs were built in 1964. The rigid supervision of sex workers’ conduct and the US-instigated cleanup campaigns became especially constricting in the early 1970s, under the rule of Park Chung-hee, the former general who ran South Korea as a dictatorship for 18 years.
A primary reason for Park’s sex crackdown was geopolitical: In 1971, President Nixon shocked the Park government by ordering the withdrawal of the Army’s 7th Division from Camp Casey, cutting the US presence in South Korea by 20,000 troops—a 30 percent reduction.
Fearing that the United States was about to abandon him, Park launched an expensive lobbying campaign in Washington to convince Americans of South Korea’s importance as an ally (it ended up in a scandal called, naturally, Koreagate). Then, in 1972, Park imposed a draconian system of martial law called Yushin that was designed to ensure total loyalty from South Korean citizens in the country’s bitter political rivalry with the North.
In Dongducheon, Choi and other residents recall, Park launched a simultaneous crackdown on the permissive culture that had grown around the US bases. A key aim of the new initiative was to impress upon Congress, which had lodged complaints about the excesses of the camp towns, his determination to protect US forces from STDs. The Pentagon, which badly wanted Park’s continued support for US bases at a time when South Korea housed a huge contingent of American service members, reacted by ordering the Army to expand its own oversight of the camp towns.
Moon, in Sex Among Allies, described the US crackdown as a “public relations campaign” designed to defuse growing diplomatic tensions with Park and other Korean leaders who were voicing skepticism about America’s commitments. “We made it clear to the Koreans through the Clean-Up activities that we wanted to stay,” one US military official involved in the campaign told her.
The South Korean government has never formally recognized its own role in the militarized sex industry or the state’s impingement on the rights of Korean women. Nor, of course, has the United States.
For the sex workers in the camp towns, though, the crackdowns meant tighter controls over their already heavily constricted working lives. The new detention centers monitoring the spread of STDs doubled as all-purpose clearinghouses of centralized surveillance.
According to Professor Park, US military officials leading the crackdown insisted on consolidating the state scrutiny of sex workers under one roof, “so US forces could control Korean comfort women’s bodies more directly.” Determined to stamp out any chance of GIs contracting diseases, the US military began asking troops to identify sex workers they suspected of carrying STDs.
The women were then rounded up and taken to buildings like the Monkey House, where they were forcibly examined and given heavy doses of penicillin often administered by US military medics. (According to Moon, US officials chose to use higher doses of antibiotics than those that Korean physicians typically prescribed “without having adequately researched their efficacy and side effects on the Korean women,” running the risk of acute health issues such as “penicillin shock” and, Choi told me, even death.) This hazardous-to-lethal drug regimen featured prominently in Judge Lee’s reparations ruling last year.
One former sex worker starkly laid out the conditions faced by many kichijong women in a documentary film produced by Durebang. “A pimp sold me to a US camp town,” she recalled. “Inside a warehouse, I was raped. The police sent me to the Monkey House, where American medics gave us injections” of penicillin and other drugs to prevent the spread of STDs. After her release, she was required to wear a plastic badge showing she’d been tested—“cunt tags,” she called them.
All sex workers and bar owners were required to hang these registration certificates on the walls of their establishments as well. (Still, the patina of public shame surrounding the camp towns doesn’t mean the women should only be seen as victims, said Park. Many fought back against the “injustice, government control, and the club owner exploitation,” as well as the conduct of US troops.)
Yet while Korean sex workers lived under a regime of maximal state coercion and surveillance, American GIs were not subject to any restrictions on their movements. Until the 1990s, the clearest measure of the unfairness built into the kichijong system was the absence of full legal accountability in the face of the frequent abuses committed by American service members. When GIs would attack or abuse Korean sex workers and other civilians living in the camp towns, their criminal liability was limited; the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries stipulated that all crimes by US personnel fell exclusively under the jurisdiction of US military courts. While South Korea was under military rule, Korean citizens were forced to stifle their outrage; but with the assassination of Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the onset of democracy in the late 1980s, they found their voice.
As civilian democratic governance began at last to take root, South Korean citizens started to demand accountability from the US government and military for their complicity in the brutal practices of the past and their active support for authoritarian rule in South Korea. And with a South Korean press now unshackled from government censorship, reports of US crimes and violence in the areas around the US bases became a national issue. A National Assembly report from that time compiled a list of 39,542 crimes committed by US military personnel between 1967 and 1987, including murders, rapes, theft, arson, and smuggling.
Uncomfortable truth about US military and South Korean prostitution
The tensions around the bases exploded in 1992 in Dongducheon, when an Army private in the 2nd Infantry Division, Kenneth Markle, savagely murdered a sex worker named Yun Geum-i in her room. Photos of her mutilated and sodomized body, apparently leaked by the Korean police to the media, enraged the Korean public. Yun’s murder was a pivotal turning point in Choi’s odyssey toward feminist and pro-democratic activism. “It became a big issue all over the nation,” she told me. “People started coming here to protest.”
In 1993, student, labor, religious, and civic organizations formed an umbrella coalition called the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea. The group’s chief demand was for American military personnel accused of crimes against Korean civilians to fall under the jurisdiction of the Korean justice system, and not the more lenient US military courts.
It worked: Markle became the first American turned over to South Korea for a criminal trial; in 1993, he was convicted and sentenced to life. (The sentence was later shortened to 15 years, and Markle was paroled by Korean authorities in 2006 and returned home.) Yun’s murder “was the result of systematic neglect and dismissal of the women,” said Kim, the counselor at Durebang.
Ten years later, another incident involving soldiers from Camp Casey sparked Korean anger anew. In 2002, two GIs driving an armored vehicle during a US military exercise ran over and killed two young girls living on the outskirts of Dongducheon. The US military rejected pleas to turn the soldiers over to Korean courts, arguing that because they were on duty at the time of the maneuvers, the Status of Forces Agreement required they be tried by the Army—and when the Army did try them, they were acquitted.
The verdict triggered protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Seoul and other cities. Although US officials and American reporters often referred to the movement as “anti-American,” the overriding issue was the mistreatment of civilians by a US military force that was supposed to be in their country to protect them from North Korea.
The armored-vehicle incident “was when people first realized that, when US soldiers commit crimes, it’s difficult to hold them responsible,” said Baek, the former activist with People’s Solidarity. “The fact they were on duty didn’t matter to us; we weren’t at war.” By 2002, she told me during a recent visit to Washington, the “space had opened up to criticize US forces…. It began to hit people there was something seriously wrong.” The backlash was fierce: One poll conducted in 2003 indicated that an astonishing 57 percent of South Koreans favored the immediate withdrawal of US forces.
Both incidents led to changes in US military behavior. In the Yun murder case, officials at Camp Casey publicly apologized, and in 1993 Yun’s family received about $72,000 in compensation from the US government. USFK also agreed to take more forceful measures to supervise their service members, and US military police began to cooperate with Korean investigations of crimes against camp-town residents. Defendants charged with serious crimes, such as rapes and assaults, were turned over to Korean courts.
As a result, crime rates by US troops went down, and “things got better” for the women and the general populace in Dongducheon, said Choi. At the same time, the armored-vehicle incident and the movement it sparked led the USFK to drastically alter the administrative protocols governing the camp towns and the relationship between US service members and Korean women and civilians.
At the peak of US troop strength in the 1980s, the kichijong economy contributed 5 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product.
In 2002, the George W. Bush administration issued a presidential directive calling sex trafficking a “modern day form of slavery” and stating that the US government “opposes prostitution and any related activities, including pimping, pandering, or maintaining brothels, as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons.”
After that, the US military adopted strict policies to prevent sexual exploitation and violence around the bases, said Jacqueline Leeker, the public information officer for US Forces Korea. “USFK takes any act of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, or violent crimes extremely seriously and is committed to eradicating them in our sphere,” she told me in an email. Today, the 2ID and USFK websites list dozens of establishments near Camp Casey and Camp Humphreys that are off-limits to US troops because of suspected prostitution and trafficking.
By the mid-1990s, Korean sex workers had virtually disappeared from Dongducheon and other camp towns. They’ve been replaced, mostly by women from the Philippines, South Asia, Africa, and Russia. (I saw some of them outside a Peruvian restaurant in Dongducheon the night I was there, hanging out with the GIs patronizing the eate
ry.) At the New York conference, Kim Eun-jin, Durebang’s director, said the migrant sex workers suffered abuse and exploitation less frequently than in the past and no longer faced forced exams or military police roundups. They even have a national sex workers union called Hanteo to represent their interests. “But the structure of trafficking and exploitation still remains,” she contends, citing recent incidents in which Filipino women have sought legal assistance against bar owners they claim lured them to South Korea under false pretenses.
Thousands of women forced to serve as sex-workers near US military bases across South Korea are now demanding compensation
Last year, Durebang transferred its primary offices from Dongducheon to Pyongtaek, the city adjoining Camp Humphreys, to continue its work where most US troops are congregated. The USFK headquarters is now the largest US military base in the world, and will be home to around 40,000 service members, contractors, and family members when it is completed over the next several years.
But up near the DMZ, the shame of the old camp town still lingers. The people of Dongducheon are now looking desperately for economic alternatives that might help it survive when the United States finally decides it can’t be in South Korea forever. (In September, the South Korean government said it would “push actively” for the early return of 26 US bases; USFK officials said 15 of them, including Camp Hovey, a small US outpost in Dongducheon, were ready to be turned over.) For Choi, the key to the city’s future is getting the land back—all those beautiful hills and valleys now dominated by Camp Casey and its last artillery brigade.
“Returning the base is so important,” said Choi. “We have nothing economically.” Her organization has been pushing the idea of transforming the land into a university focused on peace studies, or a national park. “For the local people, however, there’s a taboo around the club areas,” she said. “The city is trying to revitalize, but the people won’t come. They’re ashamed of the camp town and want to forget.”
She and other local activists argue that the pending lawsuit can help reverse this self-induced state of historical amnesia. It can also help to dismantle the deep-seated reticence and shame that tends to thwart open discussion of the kichijong legacy in Korea, by honoring the former sex workers, many of them now grandmothers, who risked their reputations by going public about their experience and testifying in court.
“In 2014, they began a new struggle, demanding reparations for the violations of their human rights,” said Professor Park. And as she and other women who make the case for reparations emphasize, all such inquiries inevitably lead back to the core issue of the United States’ long history of legal and moral impunity in the region.
“Ultimately, the US military and the South Korean government encouraged and justified prostitution in the camp towns,” Ha, the attorney, concluded in New York. But she also conceded that any legal proceeding is unlikely to procure a just accounting for America’s past abuses of sex workers.
“We’re fully aware it would be a difficult process,” she said. “But we’d like to find a path to resolve the remaining issues.” By that, she means a genuine effort by the Pentagon to accept responsibility for America’s most egregious violation: “indiscriminately sending camp-town women to detention camps for STDs.” It’s unfortunate, she said, that “the US military remains silent” on this issue. Through the USFK, I asked the US Embassy in Seoul to comment. It never responded.
Based on my 40 years of reporting about the American footprint in South Korea, I’d say a US apology for its role in the postwar kichijong economy would go a long way. Many Koreans still have a strong desire to reconcile with the United States for actions and policies that, in their eyes, grievously harmed their country over the decades of partnership.
A majority of South Koreans still support the US-ROK military alliance as a hedge against the North, particularly as Trump’s on-and-off denuclearization talks with Kim Jong Un enter a critical stage this fall. But many here are still waiting for an official acknowledgment of America’s role in dividing the peninsula in 1945, its years of support for military dictators and counterinsurgencies, and the terrible violence it inflicted on civilians during the Korean War.
The struggle for reparations for the Korean “comfort women” in the US camp towns should be seen in this broader context of addressing painful issues connected to the alliance. “It’s a matter of resolving historical wrongs,” explained Hyuk-kyo Suh, the executive director of the National Association of Korean Americans, a Washington-based group that’s been lobbying Congress to support a peace treaty with North Korea. “All of these incidents are a consequence of the US military presence in Korea.”
Back in Dongducheon, Choi made a similar point. Military prostitution was “a side effect of the US role here,” she said. Raising public awareness about what happened to the kichijong women can “help us talk about the past so we can never forget it. And only from that background can we talk about peace.” For our 70-year alliance to mean anything to South Koreans who have felt betrayed, Americans should acknowledge their role in that dark past.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who was raised in Japan and South Korea by missionary parents. He lived in Seoul from 1959 to 1961 and has been writing about the two Koreas since the 1970s.
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