Where military troops go, prostitutes follow. That’s the ugly truth. And while this phenomenon isn’t limited to the US military, America’s GIs are in the spotlight because of the sheer number of US troops overseas.
According to the Swiss Institute for Peace and Energy Research (SIPER,), the United States has the most significant defense budget in the world at $611 billion in 2016 and maintains 701 bases in 42 countries and 16 territories. The UK and France come in second and third, with headquarters in 11 countries each. Russia has nine and China, for all its economic glory, has only one, in Djibouti.
The US military has an official protocol for its conduct. But for all its tough talk, the real-life experience in the overseas stations is starkly different. Areas surrounding US bases abroad, called camptowns, look identical. They are created primarily to serve the GIs. Liquor stores, diners, bars, tattoo parlors, and prostitution make up most of the businesses. But nowhere are these camptowns so entrenched in a country’s culture and the economy as in South Korea.
The US troops have been in the Republic of Korea (South Korea’s official label) since the end of World War ll in 1945, overseeing the turnover of governance from the Japanese to the Koreans. Unfortunately, the turnover included the brothels that the Japanese army had previously set up. The new management of the comfort stations differed from the previous in that the Korean women in these brothels were not strong-armed into sexual slavery. Instead, the concept of patriotism was indoctrinated into their minds, making them believe that offering their bodies to the US troops was for a noble cause.
From 1945 – 1948, when the US military government took over, South Korean officials and the US Army public health personnel worked together to tolerate prostitution only within the camptowns and regulate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases through regular checkups. During this period, a VD (Venereal Disease) Control Council was set up by the US Army, and around fifteen thousand women underwent treatment and checkup by US military doctors.
The US troops, except for a handful of advisers, left South Korea in mid-1949 after the United Nations recognized the ROK as the lawful government of Korea in December 1948. But they were back by June 27, 1950, on orders of US President Truman to help the South against the communist invasion of the North. When the war ended in a stalemate in July 1953, a military alliance was forged soon after that between Washington and Seoul in October 1953. Its purpose was to defend the ROK in case of another foreign attack.
After the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty, camptowns mushroomed in South Korea. In 1953, the United States had over 300,000 soldiers in its bases. The camptowns flourished mainly from the GIs’ buying power, and sex was a significant portion of that economy. To maintain the country’s national pride, prostitution was tolerated only in these villages and prohibited elsewhere. Also, only the American GIs could avail of the women’s sexual services.
South Korea after the war was total wreckage. To cope, Korean women in dire need of work flocked to the camptowns. The ROK government, seeing how it could use the women, some as young as 14, to achieve its goals, took advantage of their poverty and simple-mindedness to encourage them into prostitution, solely for the US troops and only within the regulated areas. By keeping the soldiers satisfied, the bases would stay and guarantee their national security. The inflow of foreign currency from these soldiers would also help boost the economy.
The US military had full knowledge of their soldiers availing of the sex from Korean prostitutes and took great care to control sexually transmitted diseases, through checkups and treatments. Some had regular partners and put them up in small houses called a hooch, turning them to the next soldier when their tour of duty was over.
The Korean women prostitution for the US troops continued into the 1960s up to the ‘80s when Park Chung-hee was president. It is estimated that there were about 30,000 comfort women in the ‘60s and 20,000 in the ‘70s to ‘80s. The camptown women were pariahs to their fellow countrymen, scorned and despised for their immoral lives. In their old age, they had nothing to fall back on, and live in squalor and poverty.
On June 25, 2014, helped by civic groups, 122 former comfort women sued the South Korean government for damages, alleging that they were pimped by their officials to become prostitutes for the US soldiers. They were made to undergo training in etiquette and the English language and were required to have weekly medical checkups for venereal disease. On February 8, 2018, the Seoul High Court upheld a lower court’s decision and ordered the government to pay the women.