The Korean War and beyond
At the end of the Second World War, the Korean peninsula was split between the Russian – affiliated North and the US-affiliated South. War broke out from 1950 to 1953. The North – South conflict is still unresolved, with the two sides in an uneasy truce to the present. Some of the Allied soldiers who had been stationed in occupied Japan were redeployed to Korea, and the port of Sasebo in Southern Japan became a major staging post for troops being dispatched to Korea.
During and after the war, a sexual entertainment industry developed to service the US and other Allied soldiers. In Japan, prostitution was officially prohibited from 1958 (while continuing tacitly), but in South Korea exceptions were made in specific areas around military bases and in tourism precincts. The policy of regulation allowed for the carrying out of medical examinations and testing for sexually transmissible diseases (Moon 2010: 49-50; Barraclough in this volume). As in other places, the sexual service industries were seen as ‘protecting’ other women from sexual violence. Because South Korea is seen by the US forces as a ‘hardship’ post, where troops need to be on continuous alert, soldiers (until recently) tended not to be accompanied by families, and were deployed for a relatively short time. This means that there is limited meaningful contact with the local population, and a greater demand for commercialised sexual entertainment. A distinction developed between ‘respectable’ Korean women who were seen to be worthy of protection, and the stigmatised women who provided sexual services. Different establishments serviced Korean soldiers and ‘United Nations’ soldiers (the US and its allies), with further distinctions between white and African American clientele (Moon 2010: 51).
For some of the post-Korean war period, sex workers around bases were referred to as wianbu (ianfu/comfort women) and brothels were referred to as wianso (ianjo/comfort stations), suggesting an association in some people’s minds between the Japanese army’s military brothels and the sexual service industry directed at the US and Allied soldiers (Moon 2010: 51). The areas around the bases were known as ‘gichijon’ (camp towns), and a specific genre of novels deals with the relationships in these ‘camp towns’ (Lee 2010: 132-61). In the early 1970s, violent incidents erupted in the camp towns, building on African American troops’ resentment at their exclusion from some establishments, and local peoples’ resentment at the continued presence of US troops. The US army and the South Korean government co-operated in encouraging businesses and camp town workers to provide sexual services to the African American soldiers, a not unusual example of the provision of sexual services for troops being made the subject of government-to-government discussion. At the same time, the US military and the South Korean government co-operated in a program of inspection for sexually transmissible diseases, despite the official US policy of not condoning prostitution (Hohn 2010: 326—30). As in other occupied territories, relationships in camp towns included sexual relationships, concubinage, de facto marriages or formal marriages, sometimes resulting in women’s emigrating with their overseas partners and mixed heritage children. Other such children may live with their single mothers, end up in orphanages, or be adopted overseas.
As in Japan, the continued presence of US troops stationed in South Korea means the continued existence of a sexual service industry. With democratisation in South Korea since the 1980s, it has become easier for survivors of the militarised sex industry and their advocates to speak out about sexual exploitation. It has often been incidents of sexual violence perpetrated by the US troops which have prompted discussion of these issues. In 1992, the brutal murder of a Korean woman by a US soldier prompted the creation of the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea. In 2009, a group of women called for apology and compensation from the South Korean and US governments which had facilitated the sexual service industry around US bases since the 1950s. These elderly former sex workers gained inspiration from the campaigns by the survivors of enforced military prostitution under the Japanese army in the Asia-Pacific War (Choe 2009).
In North Korea, one of the most militarised societies in the world, matters of romance, marriage, sexuality and reproduction are subordinated to nationalist goals. The North Korean state assumes that most people will live in normative heterosexual family units, and provides limited recognition of non-normative sexualities. The North Korean government does not officially recognise the existence of prostitution within the country, but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) charge that women near the Chinese border are increasingly vulnerable as the country struggles with famine, natural disasters and economic collapse. As they cross the border to search for food or to engage in market activities, they may be kidnapped or lured into vulnerable situations, and sold as farm hands, restaurant workers, family servants, brides, or sex workers (Kim in this volume).
As both Japan and South Korea prosper, sex work around military bases is increasingly being carried out by immigrant workers (Moon 2009; Lee 2010: 178—83). The chain of US military bases throughout Asia (which Chalmers Johnson [2004: 188] referred to as the ‘empire of bases’) is supported by the migration of sex workers around the region. Women from the Philippines, for example, have moved to Okinawa and South Korea to work in the sexual service industries surrounding the bases there. Meanwhile, some South Korean women emigrate to work in the sex industries in richer countries (Jang et al. 2010).