SEOUL, South Korea — Former sex workers who have sued the South Korean government, claiming it encouraged them to prostitute themselves to U.S. troops after the Korean War, have their first court hearing Friday.
The 122 elderly women are asking for more than $1.2 million, an official apology from the government and an investigation into South Korea's oversight of their work. The South Korean government and Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn were named in the suit, which alleges that Seoul began encouraging the women to work as prostitutes for U.S. servicemembers in the 1950s, a practice that continued into the 1970s. A ministry litigation officer declined to comment on the case.
"They were victims of history," said Kim Mikyoung, one of the attorneys for the women. She was one of several people who confirmed the contents of the lawsuit, filed June 25. The Seoul Central District Court would not provide a copy to Stars and Stripes, citing rules that bar the general release of such documents.
Until recent years, the former prostitutes' history has been relatively unknown. But experts have said that the South Korean government, fearing that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from the peninsula, encouraged the women to prostitute themselves to U.S. servicemembers to keep them happy and to bring American dollars into a struggling economy.
Many of the now elderly women still live outside the bases they once served. In Anjeong-ri, a neighborhood within sight of Camp Humphreys, many of the women have lived in squalid housing, unable to afford better in an area where rent has skyrocketed as the base has expanded.
Experts say most of the women have had difficult lives, many unable to find husbands and some giving birth to children fathered by U.S. troops. Some of the women gave their children up for adoption or raised them in relative isolation because of the dual stigmas of being an unwed mother and having interracial children.
The government insisted the women register at clinics for regular health checks. A story in Stars and Stripes from Nov. 2, 1971, described how U.S. and Korean officials monitored the health of U.S. servicemembers and the prostitutes.
Soldiers with venereal disease were treated and asked to identify the prostitutes they had been involved with from books of photos of every prostitute treated at a Korean government health clinic. A U.S. military vice control team would then help South Korean police locate the women and take them to an "isolation ward" for mandatory treatment, usually consisting of twice-daily penicillin shots for four days.
A bill calling for financial support for the women's living expenses and additional research into the government's involvement and its alleged oversight of the women is pending in the National Assembly.
An aide to Kim Kwangjin, one of 10 lawmakers who sponsored the bill, filed this summer, said police and health centers told the women they were conducting "patriotic acts" with U.S. troops.
"This bill is to let people know that the women are victims and the state needs to take responsibility for them," he said.
Lee Na-young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, said Seoul is unlikely to concede that it encouraged prostitution. "South Korea achieved its national security by using women's bodies and sex," she said.
The women have had little money or backing to sue the government, she said. But increased attention on another group known in South Korea as "comfort women," who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation, has benefitted the former prostitutes. Both groups support each other, with the former prostitutes attending weekly rallies that the comfort women hold outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
The U.S. military has said it is aware of the case but declined to comment on the women's claims or the lawsuit. A statement issued after the suit was filed, said U.S. Forces Korea has zero tolerance for prostitution.