On April 18, Mills College hosted South Korean activists and lawyers for a panel on state-sanctioned prostitution for U.S. soldiers post-World War II, a practice referenced as “comfort women” or kijich’on. The event was part of South Asian Middle Eastern Asian Pacific Islander (SAMEAPI) heritage month on campus.
“It’s a story of gendered politics, of state building and international relations. It’s a story of militarism and militarized violence against women,” Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and Public Policy Margo Okazawa-Rey said. “It’s also a story of courage, perseverance, hard work and solidarity between the survivors and the activists who’ve been working together for several decades.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Korean government detained prostitutes that catered to U.S. troops and forced them to undergo treatment for venereal diseases. In 2017, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that they breached law in doing so. The court also ordered monetary compensation for physical and psychological damage to some of the plaintiffs.
To help reach this point, a number of small and regional non-governmental organizations had gathered testimonies, researched U.S. documents and sought legal assistance.
Tae-Jung Kim, staff member of Durebang Shelter, Jeong-Mi Park, a sociologist and Ju-Hee Ha, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs, made up the speakers panel. Also present were Young-Nim Yu, former Executive Director (ED) of Durebang; Eu-in Kim, current ED of Durebang and Ji-Yeon Yuh, as interpreter.
Durebang Shelter is an organization and counseling center, based in South Korea, that is committed to ending prostitution and human trafficking in camp towns.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014 by more than 100 former comfort women, alleged that the government had been part of creating and managing the sex trade in camp towns, or gijichon, that bordered U.S. military bases. These underprivileged women were also trained and encouraged to prostitute themselves in gijichon brothels and bars under the guise of being patriots and civilian diplomats.
“It’s militarized prostitution, based on a kind of militarized masculinity,” Okazawa-Rey said. “There’s a very perverse understanding of male sexuality that’s predicated on the necessity of sexual release to be militarily ready.”
The plaintiffs demanded 10 million won, equivalent to 9,800 U.S. dollars, in compensation for each of them and a governmental apology.
“[This] says to the women, that they were not bad women. It says to the women, you were forced into this because of circumstances,” Okazawa-Rey said. “That’s why I think an apology is really powerful, because it says to whoever’s been violated, it wasn’t your fault; it was ours, and it’s our responsibility to take.”
Though the court determined that evidence substantiated the detention and forced treatment of comfort women occurred, it did not find that the government had a role in the gijichon bar system. Despite this and not obtaining an apology, the ruling has been considered a landmark decision since it does acknowledge the violation of comfort women’s legal and human rights.
In addition, the five-year statute of limitations was waived, since the courts determined the government’s actions to be human rights violations that should never have occurred.
Comfort women is a term usually attributed to the women and girls that had been forced to work in a system of brothels the Imperial Japanese Army had operated in occupied territories, including Korea, from 1937 to 1945.
The Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, economically depressed the region and, beginning in the 1960s, gijichon comfort women became an important source of hard currency for the local economy. Some of the women had been human trafficked into the camps and some appear to have made the choice for themselves to be able to earn a living.
“Men in the government, powerful men, they inherited from the Japanese this idea that they should ‘protect’ ordinary women by facilitating and supporting an organized system of prostitution,” Mills Ethnic Studies Visiting Research Fellow Jane Yamashiro said. “Thereby constructing a line between valuable ordinary women and more dispensable sex worker women, and this construction of the two groups, this is something that they inherited from their experiences of Japanese colonialism, and the comfort women system that had previously existed.”
Korean health authorities routinely tested kijich’on for venereal diseases, mainly out of concern for the U.S. soldiers. Those that tested positive were detained in special facilities until they were well enough to work again.
Researchers found that the U.S. military also became part of the efforts to regulate this sex trade and, therefore, minimize the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among its soldiers.
The group of South Korean activists and lawyers also spoke at events in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
“I think we have to take seriously how we’re connected to the U.S. state. It’s a category that gives us dominance, whether we think we know we’re patriotic or not,” Okazawa-Rey said. “We have to really recognize and figure out ways to take responsibility for the actions of the government outside the U.S. We pay a lot of attention to domestic things, but we don’t pay much attention to foreign.”