The United States, South Korea, and “Comfort Women”

January 22nd, 2009 by daniel Leave a reply »

As introduced last week, I’d like to use this space to report on the violence being perpetrated against women in conflict and war situations. As the possessor of the world’s largest military force, the United States has the capacity to do much good, and indeed it has. However, those endowed with great power are often faced with the temptation to abuse it, and today I’d like to talk about how the U.S. military has engaged in questionable conduct in my homeland of South Korea.

First, some context. Following the Korean War (1950-1953), the U.S. established bases in South Korea to defend the country in case of a North Korean attack; currently, there are 100 such bases throughout the country with over 30,000 American troops. In the 1950s––1970s, the South Korean government and the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) jointly agreed to set up “rest and relaxation” centers for American troops. Aimed to provide reprieve and entertainment for weary soldiers, these centers developed into kijichon (military camp towns) where only U.S. troops and servicemembers are allowed access. While prostitution is against the law in Korea, these centers are nevertheless teeming with prostitutes––or “comfort women”––with an estimated 20,000 in each kijichon.

Findings like these led Hughes et al. (http://vaw.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/13/9/901) to call the military bases and the kijichon a “hub for the transnational trafficking of women for prostitution and related forms of sexual exploitation.” The authors specifically cited “transnational trafficking” because they discovered that women were being transported within the country as well as across its borders, most often to massage parlors in the U.S. Thus, these women were being sought not only by U.S. and Korean military personnel, but also by civilian men in both countries. Furthermore, in some cases, the U.S. soldiers were themselves traffickers. In one particularly egregious example, a 14-year-old Korean girl was abducted and raped by members of the Korean army. She was then given over to an American soldier and subsequently moved to America, where she was then sold into a massage parlor circuit.

U.S. servicemen are also accused of physically abusing the very same women they traffic. The National Campaign for the Eradication of Crime by U.S. Troops in South Korea reported that U.S. soldiers committed over 10,000 crimes from 1945 to 1999. The most recently reported example occurred in 2000, when two American soldiers beat a 31-year-old bar waitress to death because she refused to have sex with them.

As a Korean, news of such atrocities hits very close to home and serves as a reminder that we all––citizen or soldier, Korean or American––need to held accountable, starting with me. One thing I want to make clear is that the lionshare of the blame does not lie with any one ethnic or racial group. As I mentioned, both Korean and Americans engaged in these despicable acts. Furthermore, in my fall quarter international health class we learned that to stand pat in the face of criminality is tantamount to complicity. Thus, this is my small but genuine effort to get the word out and call for an end to violence against my kindred.

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5 comments

  1. sarahcatan7 says:

    This blog was really interesting and highlighted the hypocrisy of this situation. American soldiers, allegedly fighting for the “free world” engaged in acts which demeaned, devalued, and abused women. That being said, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that all perpetrators, male or female, citizen or soldier, Korean or American need to be held accountable for the atrocity of their actions.

    What is perhaps most despicable is that these “comfort women” are completely objectified. A Japanese woman who had previously been imprisoned by the Imperial Army in a military camp visited Stanford and affirmed that she was often forced to have sex with between 25-30 officers a day. Many were also beaten frequently.

    I wonder to what extent such atrocities continue to be committed in military bases. Did you come across any evidence of the continuance of such practices?

  2. baj09 says:

    I found your blog quite interesting as I am currently trying to do research on human trafficking and sexual exploitation for my blog. As sarahcatan7 mentioned, there is a lot of hypocrisy associated with the “comfort women” situation in South Korea and more generally, the sexual exploitation of women that occurs all over the world. I think many people fail to realize that sexual exploitation isn’t something that just takes place in countries other than America; nor is the wrong doing only done by people who aren’t Americans. There have been stories about women and children who have been trafficked and are still continuing to be trafficked in the United States. As such, Americans are just as guilty when it comes to participating in acts of exploitation.

  3. jeff says:

    Thank you for posting this. Previous to your post I had not heard of this particular inhumane situation and criminal activity. I agree with holding everyone who commits any crime accountable. What is interesting to consider too is the situation that may cultivate these types of atrocities. Apparently, there was some consensus between the two nations that soldiers need to be “comforted.” I believe that the soldier’s need to be comforted does not necessitate violating human rights of others. Human needs are not in conflict. The way to make people realize this is to expel greed from any notion of human entitlement. We have a right to pursue happiness, but not strip others of theirs.

  4. jonny says:

    Wow. Awful. What efforts have been taken to address this?

    To Jeff’s point, have both armies really agreed to this idea that soldiers need comforting? Is this practiced at US military bases around the world? I hope you keep digging.

  5. katie says:

    This is very interesting particularly because of the US soldiers involvement. I feel that here in the United States we often equate sex trafficking and other horrible astrocities to barbarians in other nations. As jonny wrote, this makes me wonder what activities occur at other US military bases around the world. And the other question that comes to mind right after reading the blog is: If the public is aware of these occurrences, what is being done to stop them? Overall, I think this article really opens my eyes to the idea that perpetrators of violence to women are a lot closer to home.