Three-point Suite : The facts about South Korea’s comfort women, 1945-2015
Monthly Seiron Aug. 2015
By historian Hata Ikuhiko
Hata Ikuhiko: Born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, 1932. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, Tokyo University. Doctor of Law. After studying at Harvard and Columbia Univ. Formerly director of the Office of Financial Affairs History, Ministry of Finance; visiting professor at Princeton University; professor at Chiba University; and professor at Nippon University. His many publications include In Pursuit of the Mysteries of Shōwa History (Bungei Shunjū), Comfort Women and Warzone Sex (Shinchō Sensho, 1999), HIROHITO the Shōwa Emperor in war and Peace (Global Oriental, 2007)
The day the taboo was broken
The editorial in the May 2nd, 2015, edition of the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo sounded the following alarm:
If South Korea takes a wrong turn, then it will find itself placed in a position of pariah vis-à-vis neighboring nations.
And the leftist Hankyoreh newspaper argued, in an editorial on May 6th, that, “incompetent South Korean diplomacy must be reformed in its entirety, both in terms of strategy and in terms of personnel.” South Korean President Park Geun-hye has previously maintained her hardline stance by publicly citing “one thousand years of resentment” in refusing to hold bilateral top-level talks with Japan as long as Japan did not resolve historical issues, including the comfort-woman problem. But, perhaps unable any longer to ignore these media criticisms of her administration, even President Park has begun to show signs of softening her position. But after announcing a “two-track strategy” for dealing with security and economic concerns separately from the historical issues, she immediately made an abrupt volte-face. A resolution was passed in the South Korean National Assembly on May 2nd condemning Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō by name, and President Park, on May 20th, personally appealed to the secretary general of UNESCO, conveying her opposition to the tentatively-approved world heritage list registration of a Meiji-era Japanese industrial revolution site.
The nadir of this anti-Japan sentiment came perhaps on May 15th, when a columnist for the South Korean online media outlet Daily Journal remarked irresponsibly that, “given the opportunity, the only thing to be done would be to make Princess Kako of the Japanese imperial household work as a comfort woman.”
Public opinion within Japan regarding South Korea, which had already been tending toward resignedly letting South Korea alone to do as it pleased, seems to have accepted these latest outbursts and maneuverings with an indifferent attitude of, “here we go again.” Put in the most awkward position in all of this is probably the United States, which has been exerting every possible effort to build bridges between Japan and South Korea in an attempt to bring a rebalancing to East Asia as part of the strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-US alliance.
All this notwithstanding, there is something I have come to realize in the course of pondering how best to understand this heightened anti-Japan sentiment—a sentiment that seems somehow different from the usual fare.
Namely, while Japan and the United States, and South Korea and the United States, all seem somehow to functionally communicate through the medium of English, there are very few people in either Japan or South Korea who speak one another’s respective language. Thus, news networks and major newspapers, as well as news agencies and special correspondents, pick up only secondary information, leaving no spaces for multi-layered intellectual exchange.
Symbolic of this regrettable state of affairs is that, while the three major South Korean newspapers (the Chosun Ilbo, the Dong-A Ilbo, and the JoongAng Ilbo) all publish Japanese editions, the newspaper reading room at the National Diet Library—which carries all of the major newspapers from Europe and North America—does not carry any of the Japanese versions of the South Korean papers.
But it is not as though there are no other information channels that might make up for this lack of readily-available South Korean news in Japanese. When one searches the three major South Korean newspapers’ websites, one finds a surprising abundance of information from those papers’ Japanese editions, from articles on politics, economics, and society, to editorials and guest columns. There is even information in these papers that one does not find in newspapers and magazines in Japan. The first thing I encountered were topics having to do with comfort women, one example of which I quote below:
Japan Must Apologize, Sons and Daughters of Comfort Women Victims Vow
The late Choi Son-sun (1921-2013) was a comfort woman victim of the Japanese military. Although abducted at the age of sixteen by the Japanese military, she kept this fact hidden for more than sixty years. Her family first found out just three years before Choi died, when Choi’s son’s wife came to learn of it by coincidence.
One day, while my mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, was showing me the bankbook in which are recorded living-assistance deposits, she told me that this was money the state provided to her for having been abducted to work as a comfort woman. This is how I found out.
Choi’s grandson, Wan Minho (37), first learned of the fact of her having been a comfort woman when there was a condolence wreath at his grandmother’s funeral parlor from President Park Geun-hye. Wan says that he is pained at heart when he thinks of his grandmother’s concealing this for so long.(JoongAng Ilbo, March 2nd, 2015)
Although written in a plodding, rambling style, it nevertheless reminded me of reportage in Japanese newspapers in the past, which also focused on first-person, personal recollections when reporting on the comfort women. But when I looked at the article immediately following the one quoted above, I found it to be much more provocative. I introduce the gist of this article here, as it contains what I believe to be important information:
Fourteen family members of comfort woman victims of the Japanese military have formed the Society of Victims’ Descendants. On February 28th, these children of the comfort women held a formal ceremony at the “House of Sharing” (Nanum House) to mark the formation of the society, which the descendants claim they launched out of regret that the comfort women died without hearing a single word of apology. Fifty-three surviving [comfort women] also participated. No descendants have ever come forward before. It is expected that the descendants’ society will henceforth seek a formal Japanese apology, as well as legal reparations.
If, as appears likely, the comfort women issue will not end simply with a presidential memorial wreath, but that it will be necessary endlessly to engage with the comfort women’s descendants, then this will all become truly tiresome. The Japanese newspapers, though, seem to have overlooked this important development. It may even come to pass that the pro-Korea comfort woman faction in Japan will adopt this new line of attack, and will begin supporting activities of their own.
When one continues searching the Japanese-language databases of the South Korean papers, one finds a succession of striking articles having to do with the comfort women. For example, from CBS News for May 8th, there is this:
While the foreign relations department is in favor of promoting the movement to have comfort women materials registered with the UNESCO world heritage program, it is opposed to the proposal before the national assembly that would also call for the establishment of a comfort woman memorial day.
And this, from the April 29th edition of the Segye Times (Segye Ilbo):
The South Korean Female Bar Association is recommending the fifty-three surviving former comfort women as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Overall, the European and North American media has been lukewarm in its treatment of this kind of information coming out of South Korea. Exceptions, however, do exist. For example, I found that when former comfort woman Lee Yong-Sou (86), who in 2007 testified before the United States House of Representatives, traveled to the US in order to participate in a movement spearheaded by Korean-American organizations to block Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visit to the United States, the Washington Post published an interview with her (April 23rd, 2015).
The interview was a fluff piece covering an entire page, and also featuring a photograph of Lee Yong-Sou holding a crucifix she claimed to have received from the pope. For all this, though, the actual content of the article was very badly lacking in substance.
The article left unsaid when and where the things she claimed happened took place—her experiences as a comfort woman, her upbringing in a farming household, her alleged abduction at age fourteen by Japanese troops who she says barged into her house while she was sleeping, and her claims to have been forced to work as a prostitute at a kamikaze base. Instead, the piece deals exclusively with Lee’s personal reflections, all of them as unverifiable as the clouds passing overhead are impossible to pin down. The interviewer quotes Lee’s message of determination—“Before I die, I will make Abe apologize”—but one suspects this may really have been the interviewer’s aim in writing the article.
However, the South Korean media’s gullibility and aggressiveness on the subject of the comfort women have become limited only to those cases in which the “assailant” is the Japanese military or the nation of Japan, and the “victims” are South Korean women. It should come as no surprise, though, that the day has come when this longstanding, self-serving taboo has been broken. To put it simply, I refer to an arrangement in which the assailants were the Korean government and military, and the victims were Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asian women.
122 American-military comfort women
On June 25th, 2014, one hundred and twenty-two former American-military comfort women filed suit against the South Korean government, seeking apologies and reparations for alleged forced abduction and forced prostitution. The brief included documents signed by former South Korean President Park Chung-hee showing that these activities were carried out under his direct jurisdiction.
When, in 1992, as the first Japanese-military comfort woman Kim Hak-sun and others filed suit with the Tokyo District Court, the number of plaintiffs was only three (later, six). Lawsuits filed thereafter have also included only a few plaintiffs, making the plaintiff group of one hundred and twenty-two women of a scale without parallel elsewhere. Although this would seem to be tremendously newsworthy, none of the three major South Korean newspapers ran even a single line about the lawsuit, despite there having been a press conference by the related parties. This remains virtually unchanged. As there is no evidence of the South Korean government’s having ordered any reporting restrictions, the only plausible explanation is a tacit decision to practice voluntary restraint.
In Japan, the Sankei Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers all carried short articles on the lawsuit the day after it was filed, with the Asahi Shimbun reporting briefly on the subject on the 28th. Several of the weekly magazines (such as the Weekly Bunshun, Weekly Shinchō, and Flash) covered the lawsuit a few days later in trailer pieces. However, the South Korean government maintains a strict control over journalistic activities, and so there have been no follow-up reports as of today—one year later—because it is impossible to establish contact with the plaintiffs’ group. Even the Japanese Foreign Ministry itself has been unable to obtain the full text of the lawsuit documents.
Among the South Korean media, the only outlets that I determined to have done any initial reporting on the lawsuit were the Yonhap News Agency and the leftist Kyunghyang Shinmun. So I contacted the Tokyo bureau of one of the three major South Korean papers and was thereby able to obtain copies of the Kyunghyang Shinmun. When they arrived, they came complete with Japanese translations, which I took to be possibly the individual initiative of a reporter dissatisfied with that company’s policy of not publishing.
Although slightly delayed, on July 5th the Hankyoreh featured a cover story with detailed reporting on the subject. The article quoted the opening statement of the head of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, who remarked in her opening statements at a press conference held at the Seoul Women’s Plaza that:
Since the Korean War, the government has built camptowns and, in point of actual fact, has managed them, thus infringing on women’s rights. The law prohibiting prostitution was treated as nothing more than a scrap of paper. This was a state crime repeated virtually countless times, enabled by a collusive and improper relationship between the police and the brothel owners, and involving sexual violence, beatings, house imprisonment, forced abortions, forced screening for, and treatment of, sexually transmitted diseases, and sex trafficking.
The group of four plaintiffs, now in their sixties through eighties, who were camptown comfort women have continuously altered their personal narratives. I extract a portion of those narratives here.
“When I was a young girl, my dream was to become a member of the national assembly. But I was subjected to human trafficking and sold to a camptown, so my dream disappeared like foam on the water. We were dollar-earning machines. I live now suffering from poverty and poor health.” (Her testimony was punctuated by crying, and by demands for the country to apologize.)
Woman B (75):
“I was beaten by my father and sold, and then I sold my body in the camptown until I was forty-two. My body is in very bad shape, and I live in a tiny thirteen-meter-square room on welfare and my old-age pension. My landlord is threatening to evict me. I want the country to provide me with a small home where I can lie down in peace and rest my aged frame.”
Woman C (63):
“When I was eighteen, an employment agency connected me with a job at a US military club, but I was then made to write out an oath swearing that I didn’t regret coming to work at a camptown. When I said that I wanted to quit working there, the brothel owner—who acted as both my police and my source of income—beat me severely. I now work for a pittance as a waitress in a club.”
“To be perfectly frank, I loathe this country. Why are they the yes-men for the US military? When I turn on the TV, I see that the comfort women who worked for the Japanese military have groups of supporters, and seem to be getting a good deal of money. We, too, were used up and cast off by the government, and I want them to treat us as victims, too, just the same as they do for the comfort women for Japan. Who is going to give back to me the flower of my beautiful sixteen-year-old youth?”
These tales of woe are indistinguishable from the personal stories of the comfort women who worked for the Japanese military—women who are said to have endured “indescribable suffering.” Still, with the exception of the Hankyoreh Shinmun, the camptown comfort women’s lawsuit has met with almost complete silence in the South Korean media. The South Korean government persists in refusing to comment on it, the bar association has not made the lawsuit text public, and there has been no response to media requests to interview the plaintiff women.
The American and European media outlets won’t touch the story, either. In the midst of this lack of information, Katō Tatsuya, the Seoul bureau chief for the Sankei Shimbun, wrote a report for the monthly magazine Seiron in September of 2014 (for an issue that went on sale August 1st) titled, “Sexual exploitation an inconvenient truth for the South Korean government.” This painstaking work of research worked backwards in pursuit of the complete picture of this issue that has long lain in smoldering obscurity inside of South Korea.
As for why the South Korean government has maintained such silence, Katō cites the impressions of a parliamentarian staffer, who says, “If one were to probe into this problem, it would lead to a debate about the responsibility of the Park Chung-hee administration (1962-1979), and would, by extension, call into question the legitimacy of the administration of Park’s daughter, current president Park Geun-hye. To raise the cry about this issue would be to bring to the surface the fact that, in the past, and for a variety of different reasons, South Korean society used women who had no choice but to work as prostitutes and pushed them into working to slake the lust of the American soldiers, and then abandoned them.”
Katō has also brought other facts into the light, such as that successive administrations have been aware of the role of the US-military comfort women, and that the women were flattered as “dollar-earning heroes.” These issues were brought up in October of 2012, when questions about them were raised by a member of the opposition party. And in November of 2013, an opposition party member revealed, during parliamentary debates, a document obtained from the presidential archives, titled “Camptown Clean-Up Measures” and dated May 2nd, 1977, which was signed by then-president Park Chung-hee in his own hand.
On this document is listed information about the “US military comfort women,” such as that they were residing at sixty-two camptown locations, and that 9,935 women were engaged in prostitution throughout this camptown network. The one hundred and twenty-two plaintiffs attached this document to their lawsuit. It is decisive proof, and one can only imagine the shock with which it must have been received by President Park Geun-hye, who has made the resolution of the Japanese-military comfort women issue the priority of her administration.
On August 5th of 2014, Bureau Chief Katō was indicted, and on August 7th was sentenced to confinement within South Korea, being prohibited from leaving the country. On October the eighth, he was sentenced to house arrest. The putative reason for this punishment was that Katō had published on the Sankei website, on August 3rd, a rumor that had been spreading through the South Korean media regarding the unclear whereabouts of President Park Geun-hye on the day of the sinking of the ferry MV Sewol on April 16th, 2014.
My guess, though, is that, in light of the timing of the arrest, the aim of Katō’s sentencing was to prevent him from continuing to investigate the US military comfort women issue.
The two court cases proceeded simultaneously. The first hearing for Bureau Chief Katō was on November 27th, while the first hearing for the US military comfort women lawsuit was on December 19th. The ban on Katō’s leaving South Korea was lifted and he returned to Japan in April of 2015, but his court case is still ongoing. A preliminary notice states that the second hearing for the comfort women’s lawsuit will be held on January 3rd. As it is unclear whether the case will continue, all related information also remains in suspension.
Even as regards the preliminary hearing in the lawsuit, the reporting was scant. Yonhap News Agency (December 22nd) and the US Armed Forces Newspaper (December 26th) reported that the four groups supporting the plaintiffs held a press conference at which they stated that, “Even today, Filipina, Russian, and other foreign women are subjected to human trafficking at camptowns. The truth of this situation should be brought to light.” The two news groups also reported that the lawyer for the South Korean government has submitted a reply indicating that, “In order for state reparations to come into effect, it will be necessary for each of the one hundred and twenty-two plaintiffs to provide, in turn, specific details about exactly what kind of damages they incurred.”
Some speculated at first that the court would dismiss the US-military comfort women’s lawsuit out of hand. But it seems that the court’s grudging acceptance of the suit was based upon the difficulty of ignoring the strong pressure placed upon it by the four groups supporting the plaintiffs (groups such as the Alliance of Korean Women’s Groups and the Chong Dae Hyup Camptown Women’s Rights Collective).
There may be some who have difficulty understanding why Chong Dae Hyup (which is the abbreviated name of the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council)), which has been continuously at the vanguard of the Japanese-military comfort woman problem, has injected itself into the US-military and South Korean-military comfort woman issues, as well. However, the security forces within South Korea have long viewed Chong Dae Hyup as a surveillance target, understanding Chong Dae Hyup to be a pro-North Korea organization which advocates for North Korea’s interests in the South.
In 1993, current Chong Dae Hyup representative Yoon Mee-hyang’s husband and his younger sister were both arrested and convicted as North Korean spies. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that a support organization operating under the name “Chong Dae Hyup” would involve itself in anti-American and anti-Japanese activities, too.
Camptown Western Princesses
The US military comfort women issue is not the only problem smoldering beneath the surface of South Korean society. There is also the existence, for example, of the comfort women and comfort stations provided exclusively for the use of the South Korean military, a fact first made public in 2002 by Kim Ki-ok, an assistant professor first at Gyeongnam University and later at Hansung University.
Another emerging issue is the 2015 discovery by TBS Washington bureau chief Yamaguchi Noriyuki, relying on official US military documents, that, during the Vietnam War, the South Korean military gathered Vietnamese women to work in a comfort station in Saigon that was run by the South Korean military.
In neither of these cases have any of the victims come forward by name, which makes it difficult to understand the cases in full. Nonetheless, I present the new information here as a three-point suite, looking primarily at the US-military comfort women, for which there is a great amount of material that has been collected. Doing so will also trace the history of prostitution on the Korean Peninsula, and in South Korea proper, after the Second World War. One method would be to divide this history into four different periods, namely, the period around the Korean War (1945- ), the heyday of the camptowns (1954- ), the period of cleaning up the camptowns (1971- ), and the period of overseas prostitution (1997- ). However, my method here will be to examine these issues by separating out the main points of contention.
1/ The two sides of legal regulation
The US military has maintained publicly that it prohibits the use of prostitutes throughout the armed forces. In practice, though, it has tacitly accepted soldiers’ visiting prostitutes. In May of 1946, during the military occupation of Korea, Commanding Gen. John Reed Hodge issued an order forbidding the trafficking of women and girls, and in November of 1947 issued an order abolishing licensed prostitution. (1) However, because doing so made it impossible to implement mandatory venereal disease testing [for prostitutes], the rate of sexually transmitted disease infection increased along with the proliferation of unlicensed prostitutes calling themselves “hostesses” and “dancers,” thus presenting the military authorities with a dilemma.
Following the independence of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in May of 1948, the United States military temporarily withdrew from the peninsula, only to return after the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950. US forces remained permanently in South Korea, even after the cease-fire in 1953. One of the most pressing problems the American military faced following the cessation of hostilities with North Korea was how to counter the spread of venereal disease. Hamstrung by their publicly-advocated ban on prostitution, the US armed forces passed off the management of sexually transmitted disease to the South Korean government, thus giving rise to an ingenious system of “tacit acceptance of prostitution engaged in by ‘clean’ women free from venereal disease.” (2)
Beginning in May of 1951, in the middle of the Korean War, a series of comfort stations (“recreation centers”) for the exclusive use of the American (and UN) military forces was constructed. These recreation centers would later develop into camptowns. The women who worked in these places were known variously as “UN comfort women,” “Western princesses,” and “special-industry women.”
Although in 1961 South Korea enacted the Law for the Prevention of Depraved Activities, illegalizing prostitution, it concomitantly established Governmental-Approved Prostitution Zones, a designation which included camptowns, and increased the number of such areas from 104 to 145 locations.
The South Korean government, hoping to bring in foreign currency, simultaneously passed the Tourism Industry Promotion Act, which welcomed not only American servicemen, but also brought Japanese tourists to Japan on “kisaeng tours.” One analyst, Catharine Moon, estimates that income earned through the sex industry amounted for fully 25% of GNP.
In 2004, against the backdrop of a more active women’s movement and a democratization process that had been progressing since the 1990s, a new Special Sex Trafficking Law was enacted, only to be faced with large-scale demonstrations by women in the licensed prostitution zones immediately after it came into effect. Yamashita Yon’e has evaluated these demonstrations as a “major challenge” to the women’s movement, which has finally taken notice of the appalling plight of prostitutes working in “conditions of veritable sexual slavery.” However, as South Korea has become more economically prosperous, South Korean men, as with Japanese men, have begun setting out on overseas sex tours. And as income inequality has worsened, impoverished women have continued to move into the prostitution industries both at home and abroad. Yamashita has generalized the recent situation as one in which “women in developing countries are ‘exported’ as commodities.” (3)
Today, South Korea has become a “prostitution superpower,” sending more than one hundred thousand women worldwide to work as prostitutes, fifty thousand of them to Japan and eight thousand to the United States. (4) Even in Europe and the Americas (but only in the state of Nevada in the US), the trend is towards legalizing simple prostitution, or else tacitly accepting it.
2/ Is the Originator South Korea, or the US Armed Forces in Korea?
Because there have been laws prohibiting prostitution in South Korea throughout almost the entire period [of its existence], the activities of comfort women working for the US military are technically illegal. The fact of this prostitution activity carries with it the question of who should take responsibility for the suffering of the women.
However, not even the lawsuit filed by the one hundred and twenty-two plaintiffs seeks redress from the US military. Many of the plaintiffs in that suit viewed their US servicemen clients as “paying customers.”
Insofar as the plaintiffs see the role of the US soldiers in this way, the brunt of the women’s anger is directed at the South Korean government, which the Korean women revile as the “big pimp of the US military.” (5)
Particularly influential in provoking such anger seems to be the feeling of insult that these women experienced when, as camptown Western princesses infected with venereal disease, they were confined to a quarantine facility known as a “monkey house,” and then released after their forced treatment was over wearing a tag declaring them disease-free.
Seen from the perspective of the South Korean government, there was a need to provide American soldiers with improved services in order to prevent the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula and the loss of recreation areas to Japan. The compulsory testing for venereal disease was thus accepted as a necessary evil along these lines.
It was in the midst of this predicament that the Park Chung-hee administration sought to improve the living conditions of women, even if only marginally, with the Camptown Clean-Up Measures. These measures called for, among other things, the elimination of bad brothel managers, the formation of self-governing and mutual-aid societies, cultural centers where women would be taught such things as English, health and beauty, and hygiene, and the provision of special apartment buildings for the camptown women (later cancelled). Later, the signature of President Park, which had been necessary to authorize outlays from a special fund due to a funding shortage, would became the evidentiary documentation presented in the South Korean parliament.
The state management of the camptowns, a practice that went under the moniker of “clean-up,” came to an end in 1996. There was also a drawdown in US force strength (from approximately sixty thousand to just over twenty thousand), which caused the camptowns to shrink in size, as well. By the 2000s, the camptowns had changed names, and came to be known as “juicy bars.” These juicy bars were staffed mainly by Filipina prostitutes, a practice the US State Department had recognized as human trafficking. The Western princesses, who had supported the camptown system in its heyday, retired, and by 2014 had become the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the South Korean government.
According to Korean-American professor Catharine Moon, who researches the changes in the camptown system over time and who refers to the camptown women as “unofficial diplomats,” the system of compromise oversight “promoted and organized by the Cold War-era allies South Korea and the United States” may have been the appropriate course of action. (6)
1/ Hayashi Hiroshi, “Sex Management and Sexual Violence by the US Military in South Korea: From Military Occupation to the 1950s” Song Ok-yeon, et al., eds., “The Military and Sexual Violence,” (Contemporary Historical Materials Publishing, 2010), p. 228.
2/ Ibid., p. 237
3/ Yamashita Yon’e essay, in “The Military and Sexual Violence,” op. cit., pp. 340-343.
4/ Chosun Ilbo, June 15, 2013
5/ New York Times, January 7, 2009
6/ Catharine Moon, Sex Among Allies (Columbia, 1977), p. 138
Prejudice and Discrimination
3/ Similarities and differences between comfort women for the American and Japanese militaries
Many researchers, such as Park Yu-ha, Catharine Moon, Kim Ki-ok, and Hayashi Hiroshi, understand the American military comfort station and comfort woman system as having been an almost completely faithful replica of the earlier Japanese system of providing comfort women and comfort stations to members of its armed forces.
As members of the executive staff of the South Korean military—an organization that came into existence only in 1948—they would have gained first-hand experience in the former Japanese Imperial military or Manchurian national military. As there were many among the early US-military comfort women with experience working as comfort women for the former Japanese military, this is not an unreasonable conclusion.
During the Cold War era following the end of World War Two, Japan, too, was occupied by the American armed forces, and, like South Korea, continued to host US military bases even after the restoration of national independence. Chronologically speaking, as early as August of 1945, immediately following the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific, the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs issued a request to those working in the [sex] industry to set up comfort stations (RAA) in various areas for the American military. Licensed prostitution was outlawed by a January, 1946 GHQ directive, and the RAA were closed then, too, but, in the absence of these facilities, unlicensed street prostitutes known as pan pan began to flourish—all of which resembles the changing situation in South Korea, which passed the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1956.
Thereafter, though, Japan and South Korea began to walk along different paths. In Japan, unlike in South Korea, unlicensed prostitution quarters were set up in the vicinity of American military bases, which caused the US armed forces to become concerned with ways to counter the spread of sexually transmitted disease. And in Japan, there were no camptowns such as those that were introduced by the authorities in South Korea. Beginning in 1956, Japan began to ride the wave of economic growth, which we may perhaps view as having given Japan a decade or longer lead over South Korea in terms of both women’s status and national strength.
In any event, as Choi Sok-yong points out, “until the 1980s, ‘comfort women’ referred to South Korean prostitutes, and Japanese-military comfort women were not an issue at all.” (1) There was hardly any vantage point from which to compare the two. Table 1 compares the frequency of newspaper articles, and shows a dramatic increase in reporting, from just nine articles in the 1980s on Japanese-military comfort women, to 616 articles on the same subject in the first half of the 1990s. Articles on American-military or UN armed forces comfort women appeared only rarely throughout the entire period covered by the table, which indicates that such a practice was a secret “that everyone knew, but that nobody wanted to know.” (Yi Chong-sa) (2)
However, Chong Dae Hyup and other groups of elite women activists adopted an attitude of denying any similarity with former Japanese-military and American-military comfort women. The Western princesses were seen as the “absolute dregs of South Korean society,” (3) and, as prostitutes who have lost all pedigree, were made the targets of revulsion and contempt.
In Japan, this kind of societal prejudice toward Geishas, prostitutes, and former comfort women is much less pronounced, and there is a marked contrast with South Korea when one considers the ease with which the women who were forced out of prostitution by the Japanese Prostitution Prevention Law were able to recover and find other lines of work. The near absence of prejudice toward these women in Japanese society is confirmed by the fact that, even up to the very end of the program, not a single Japanese-national former comfort woman had come out to receive any disbursements from the Asian Women’s Fund. On the other hand, though, this has given rise to the misunderstanding that the colonies and the Korean Peninsula were the sole sources of comfort women for the Japanese military, even though Japanese women constituted the majority of comfort women working for Japan.
Chong Dae Hyup, founded in 1990, employs an effective and very clever strategy. At first, Chong Dae Hyup concocted the impression that many Korean comfort women had been violently abducted by the Japanese military and forced to live in comfort stations as sex slaves.
Thus fanning the flames of anti-Japanese nationalism and thereby firming up their base of public support, Chong Dae Hyup then shifted tactics, shifting its focus to the global feminism movement which aimed to eliminate violence toward women in theaters of war.
Table 1. Number of "Comfort Women" articles in the Dong-A Ilbo
comfort women American(UN)-military
1951-55 1 17
56-60 0 36
61-65 0 56
66-70 1 118
71-75 5 39
76-80 0 20
81-85 4 9
86-90 5 8
91-95 616 3
Source: Choi Sok-yong, The Real Reason behind ‘Anti-Japanese Nation’ Written by a South Korean (Saizusha, 2012) p. 100
Note 1: According to Hayashi Kaori, “International reporting on the comfort women issue, as seen from the data,” in Third-Party Committee Report on Comfort Women Reporting in the Asahi Shimbun Newspaper, p. 4, four national newspapers in Japan carried approximately 22,000 comfort woman-related articles from November, 1984 to September, 2014; the five major South Korean newspapers carried approximately 14,000 comfort woman-related articles between 1990 and 2014; and ten newspapers in Europe and North America carried fewer than 600 comfort woman-related articles between 1991 and 2014.
Note 2: The mistaken appellation of Japanese-military comfort women as Volunteer Corps (挺身隊) has become standard.
Through the lobbying efforts of overseas Korean organizations, resolutions critical of Japan have been adopted in the US House of Representatives, as well as in various countries of the EU, and comfort women statues have been erected in Glendale, California, for example, and in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Prof. Park Yu-ha expresses her astonishment at the “surprising results achieved by this movement worldwide” since 2000. (4)
While the comfort women that had been attached to the Japanese military are revered as “holy women” and now live in well-appointed retirement thanks to welfare payments from the South Korean government, “reparations” from the Japan-sponsored Asian Women’s Fund, and other sources of funding, the former comfort women who worked for the American military have been left to face circumstances of discrimination and prejudice, and are considered to be “dirty women.” Catharine Moon has called for an exchange between Japanese-military comfort women and the women who worked at camptowns, along with the latter’s supporters, but has been rebuffed by the camptown comfort women, who see the Japanese-military comfort women as a privileged class and believe that “those women are different” (5). As can be surmised from Table 2, the living conditions in camptowns were probably even worse than those in the Japanese-military comfort stations.
1/ Choi Sok-yong, The Real Reason behind ‘Anti-Japanese Nation’ Written by a South Korean (Saizusha), 2012, p. 100
2/ Yi Chong-sa essay in The Report on Japan’s War Responsibility (No. 76, 2012)
3/ Moon, op. cit., p. 37
4/ Park Yu-ha, Comfort Women of the Empire (Asahi Shimbun Press, 2015), p. 311
5/ Moon, op. cit., pp. 9-10
“Supply Goods No. 5” Track
In 2002, Kim Ki-ok brought to light the existence of the Korean-military comfort women, who worked in a complicated entanglement with American-military comfort women. As quickly as this brief flash of enlightenment came, though, it passed, disappearing back into the shadows where it remains today.
Table 2. Comparison of Japanese-, Korean-, and American-Military Comfort Women
Japanese Military South Korean Military American Forces in Korea
Name Comfort Women(ianfu) Comfort Women(uianpu)
Supply Goods No. 5
Special Comfort Women Brigade Western princess
Status Employed by brothel owner Military personnel Employees of brothel owner
Recruitment Advertisements Yes Yes; some women also abducted Yes
Sold by Parents Yes Yes Yes
Period of Debt Repayment 1 to 2 years n/a Protracted
Recruitment Broker Brothel owner South Korean government Brothel owner
Comfort Station Managed by Brothel owner and military Managed directly by military Brothel owner and government
VD Prevention Soldiers used prophylactics Forced medical inspection Forced medical inspection
Treatment for VD Patients Treatment by military doctors n/a Forced treatment under confinement
Usage Fees Differed by nationality Free for soldiers Minimal cost
Usage Fee Payment Soldiers -> women -> brothel owner Supplied for free American soldiers -> women -> brothel owner
Comfort Women Demonstrations No No Yes
Purpose Rape prevention
Rape prevention Earn foreign currency
Kim, a young female researcher, first came to be aware of the Korean-military comfort women in 1996, when she discovered an historical series on the Korean War titled “Military Logistics History (Personnel Affairs)” that the South Korean army headquarters had prepared in 1956. When she pressed closer to the heart of the matter, though, Kim remembers learning that “even the progressive men” with whom she spoke “saw the results of my research as exposing an internal shame in the name of ethnic nationalism, and warned me that it would become vindication for the Japanese far right.” (1)
Table 3. Statistical Breakdown of the Special Comfort Women Brigade for 1952
Brigade Seoul No.1 Seoul No.2 Seoul No.3 Gangneung No.1 Total
Number of comfort women 19 27 13 30 89
Number of clients
per month Jan. 3,500 4,580 2,180 6,000 16,260 *1
Feb 4,110 4,900 1,920 6,500 17,480 *2
Mar 3,360 5,600 2,280 7,800 19,040
Apr 2,760 4,400 1,700 8,000 16,860
May 2,900 6,800 2,180 5,950 17,830
Jun 3,780 5,680 2,400 4,760 16,620
Jul 3,780 6,000 2,170 7,970 19,920
Aug 4,000 7,280 2,800 8,000 22,080
Sep 4,350 4,850 1,680 4,880 15,760
Oct 3,850 2,160 1,850 3,900 11,760
Nov 4,100 4,950 1,990 4,200 15,240
Dec 3,650 4,150 2,140 5,700 15,640
Total 44,240 61,350 25,310 73,660 204,560 *3
Average no. of daily
clients per comfort woman*4 6.4 6.2 5.3 6.7 6.15
NB: Due to calculation errors [in original table], the actual figures are as follows: *1 = 17,430; *2 = 19,040; *3 = 204,440; *4 = These calculations done by Kim Ki-ok
Kim continued to harbor doubts even after the Japanese-military comfort women had become a political issue between the Japan and South Korea. “Why,” Kim wondered, “did the South Korean military reproduce, on its own soil, the military comfort woman system used by the Japanese Empire for which the South Korean military had such obvious contempt?” (2) These doubts led Kim to continue in a pattern of long-term hesitation.
Kim finally decided to make the results of her research public at an international symposium held at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto in February of 2002. The main points of the symposium were reported on by the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Asahi Shimbun newspapers (on February 24th). News of the symposium caused very mysterious reactions within South Korea. The university where Kim worked was warned by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense to “exercise self-restraint in research activities related to South Korean-military comfort women.” Also, the aforementioned “Military Logistics History (Personnel Affairs)” documents were pulled from the shelves of the Military History Compilation and Research Institute where they had been stored, and examination of those documents was henceforth forbidden. Media coverage, too, was conspicuous for its sudden disappearance. (3)
Although official war histories are meant to be distributed widely, Kim has written in a 2010 essay that, apart from the “Military Logistics History (Personnel Affairs)” documents she viewed in 1997, she has been “unable to find any documentation related to the military comfort women anywhere.”
Kim was also able to meet with three women who had been made to work as comfort women in the past, but this avenue of research has also hit a dead-end as no women have come forward as having been former comfort women as of 2014. (4)
I would like here, under these constraints, to set forth the main thrust of the “Military Logistics History (Personnel Affairs)” documents that Kim unearthed. The best example from this is perhaps the Statistical Breakdown of the Special Comfort Women Brigade that I have transposed into Table 3. While one may speculate that the special comfort women brigade had been in existence since the 1950s when the Korean War broke out, it seems to have been around the summer of 1951, when the front lines of the war had settled into a stalemate, that the special comfort women brigade was established as a part of the military organization under the jurisdiction of the Army Headquarters and social welfare leadership authorities. Nineteen fifty-two is the only year for which a statistical breakdown is available, and, of the nine total comfort stations (three comfort women platoons in Seoul, two in Gangneung, and others in Chuncheon, Sokcho, and elsewhere), there is information recorded for only four of them.
The calculations based on these figures reveal that there were 89 comfort women in all, who performed approximately 200,000 sexual services per year, which equals the provision of “comfort” more than six times a day by each comfort woman.
However, when compared with the peak number of approximately 600,000 soldiers in the South Korean military, these figures seem entirely too low. Kim Ki-ok estimates the total number of comfort women who were members of the military to have been over three hundred, at the very least. When one includes those women whose status was merely that of an unlicensed prostitute, it is unquestionable that that number increases into the several thousands.
“Military Logistics History (Personnel Affairs)” clearly specifies that the disbanding of the special comfort women brigade took place at the end of March, 1954, after the cease-fire that brought the active phase of the Korean War to a close. Kim has written that, after the cease-fire, a Sokcho comfort woman station was repurposed as a brothel area for unlicensed prostitutes. According to testimony given by those involved in this operation, “through the 1980s and up until the beginning of the 1990s, those unlicensed prostitutes were forced to act as a kind of military ‘comfort woman’.” (5)
Even so, these South Korean-military comfort women, overshadowed by the prosperity of the camptowns where American-military comfort women worked, were destined to live lives of almost total obscurity.
Kim, who regrets that her research is so riddled with blind spots, lists the following as doubts that persist to this day. (6)
1/ Who proposed
Kim suspects that it was some in the executive staff who in all likelihood had had experience working with the former Japanese military, but the details surrounding this are unclear.
2/ Was there any legal justification?
While it is a fact that the comfort women were paid a salary just like any other member of the South Korean army, in “Logistics (Personnel Matters)” a code term—if we might call it that—is used, and these women are referred to as “Supply Goods No. 5.” Thus, the legal basis for this system is unknown.
3/ What was the comfort women’s background?
While it seems that the comfort women came from diverse sources—former Japanese-military comfort women (perhaps several thousand), refugees, North Korean collaborators, war widows, and those taken from unlicensed prostitution districts in Seoul—the actual details of their recruitment remain unclear.
The thick mystery surrounding these outstanding doubts is perhaps due to the South Korean military’s information non-disclosure policy; all the same, Kim is attempting to fill in these lacunae by seeking corroborating evidence in interviews with, and recollections of, former members of the officer corps. I give a summary of several examples of this corroborating evidence here. (7)
*/ Chae Myung-Shin (later Commander, Republic of Korea Forces, Vietnam)
In addition to fixed comfort stations, there were also mobile versions used for ferrying women to the front lines, which made the comfort women’s services available to all units. Entry into the comfort stations was by ticket, which were distributed in an order determined by valor and bravery in battle.
*/ Ch’a Kyu-hon
In March of 1952, a female comfort battalion was loaded into an army truck and brought out to the unit. The women were divided up inside of a twenty-four-man military field tent by sheets of plywood, and made to lie down on military cots. The soldiers then lined up outside and waited their turns.
*/ Kim Ui-o
One morning, “Supply Goods No. 5” (there were actually only four kinds of military supply goods) arrived, and six comfort women were allotted to our company for an eight-hour period during the day.
Although Kim Ki-ok, when speaking of the South Korean-military comfort women issue—which even today remains shrouded in darkness—“confirm[s] the fact that, although it was a latecomer, the South Korean government established and ran a South Korean-military comfort women system,” and furthermore holds that “[the government] must apologize to the women and provide them with suitable reparations,” (8) she nevertheless adds, I should point out, that, because it developed the original model for this system, Japan also bears a measure of indirect responsibility.
1/ Kim Ki-ok, “On the South Korean-Military ‘Comfort Woman’ System during the Korean War,” in the aforementioned Song Ok-yeon, et al., eds., The Military and Sexual Violence, p. 286.
3/ Fujiwara Shūhei essay in SAPIO, June, 2015 issue
4/ Kim Ki-ok essay (hereafter abbreviated as “2014 essay”) in Rethinking the Comfort Women Issue (Iwanami Shoten, 2014), p. 39
5/ Kim Ki-ok, 2010 essay, p. 291
6/ Kim Ki-ok essay (hereafter abbreviated as “2004 essay”) in Suh Sung, ed., State Terrorism and the Cold War in East Asia (Ochanomizu Shobō, 2004), pp. 362-363
7/ Ibid., pp. 360-363
8/ Kim Ki-ok, 2014 essay, p. 46
“Turkish Baths” in the Vietnam War
The third and final element of the three-point set involving comfort women and South Korea is the breaking news story about the comfort women stations that the South Korean military ran during the Vietnam War and staffed with women the South Korean military had gathered from within Vietnam.
Yamaguchi Noriyuki, who works at the Washington, DC, branch station of the prominent Japanese public-sector broadcasting firm TBS, first discovered the evidence of South Korea’s comfort woman operations in Vietnam among US military-related documents housed in the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Before being transferred to Washington in September of 2013, Yamaguchi heard from someone involved in foreign relations that “there is unconfirmed information that, during the Vietnam War, the South Korean military ran comfort stations throughout South Vietnam.” Thinking that, if he were able to find corroborating documents on the American side to verify this tip, it “might squelch the anger of President Park and the South Korean people, and perhaps change the situation,” (1) Yamaguchi spent almost one year searching through the archives until, in July of 2014, he found correspondence by an American military commander that referred to the existence of “comfort stations for the exclusive use of South Korean soldiers.”
However, for some reason TBS headquarters refused either to report this discovery or to include it in any of their programming. Unsure as to how he should proceed in the face of this rebuff, Yamaguchi eventually ran a note on his findings in the April 2nd, 2015 edition of the Weekly Bunshun (which went on sale on March 26th). Bunshun staff members traveled to Vietnam to conduct further investigations, and found the remains of comfort stations that had been called “Turkish Baths.” These findings were supplemented by information gathered from local residents.
The decisive letter from the American military commander and addressed to “Supreme Commander of South Korean Forces in Vietnam Lt. Gen. Chae Myung-Shin” is undated. However, it is estimated that the letter must have been written sometime between January and April of 1969.
The subject of the letter is the issue of exposing economic malfeasance, whereby some American and South Korean soldiers were diverting American military provisions to illicit channels and trading them on the US dollar black market. The letter goes on to name the six South Korean officers and three American soldiers suspected of engaging in this illegal activity. The letter then switches scenes to the “Turkish Bath” in the center of Saigon, with the letter-writer concluding that, “this facility is a comfort station for use by soldiers from the South Korean military,” but also saying that American soldiers are tacitly permitted to use the Turkish Bath, with the price of spending one evening with a Vietnamese prostitute set at 4,500 piastre (or 38 US dollars).
Although he would have liked to have obtained a bit more in the way of corroborating materials from the US military, Yamaguchi was able to supplement his findings by interviewing an American veteran of the Vietnam War. According to this veteran’s reflections, “the Turkish Bath was known as the ‘ejaculation parlor’ (‘Steam and Cream Parlor’) […] Almost everyone who worked at the Turkish Bath was a girl younger than twenty who came from a farming village […] But there was an even bigger comfort station than the Turkish Bath inside the city of Saigon. It seems the objective [of this other comfort station] was the prevention of rape by, and VD outbreaks among, South Korean soldiers.”
The Weekly Bunshun staff who went to Vietnam to investigate this story heard from eyewitnesses who recalled that, “The South Korean soldiers, starved for the affections of women, would pile into Jeeps and trucks and cause a tremendous ruckus as they tried to push to the front of the line, hoping to be the first into the Turkish Bath.”
There is also testimony that Turkish Baths were opened when a South Korean man (a brothel owner, perhaps?) put down the capital to convert a building owned by a Vietnamese woman, and that there were comfort stations for the exclusive use of South Korean soldiers in other places, too, such as Da Nang. More detailed research will surely come with further investigations, and in particular with the discovery of more records from the South Korean military. For now, though, let us examine the reaction to the Yamaguchi report in various quarters.
While the South Korean government and the major news outlets at first met the Yamaguchi report with silence, only the Hankyoreh newspaper conveyed the report’s main tenets, allowing that, “while the report is infuriating, it is also difficult to refute.” (2) The South Korean government urged launching “investigations and follow-up measures,” although the same government now seems wholly uninterested in following through on its own suggestions. President Park Geun-hye, who happened to be visiting Washington, DC, when the report surfaced and who may or may not have known about it, emphasized to US House of Representatives Floor Leader Nancy Pelosi that it “is necessary to bring the Japanese-military comfort woman issue to a speedy resolution.”
The American response has been nuanced. First, Chris Nelson, who runs a website dealing with Asian affairs, posted, with uncharacteristic alacrity, a nearly-complete English translation of the Yamaguchi report on March 26th. Nelson also strongly denounced “South Korean hypocrisy and double standards,” predicting that, with the release of the Yamaguchi report, “the Japan/ROK history wars just got a lot uglier.” (3)
At a press conference held by the State Department on the same day, someone asked whether the State Department was aware of the Yamaguchi report, to which State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke replied that it was. Others then asked whether the State Department planned to investigate, given that it was an instance of human trafficking, and also whether the US would be consulting with the South Korean government on the issue at hand, but, perhaps out of “Korea fatigue,” Spokesman Rathke did not provide a definite reply. (4) This ambiguous response may have been due to an awareness that the American armed forces sent to Vietnam had, in fact, been operating comfort stations staffed with Vietnamese women. (5)
Mounting the backlash against these developments has been pro-Korean University of Connecticut professor Alexis Dudden. On the Nelson Report on March 27th, Dudden snarled that, “’Others did bad things, too!’ cannot continue to be Japan’s response to everything.”
The Japanese response was carried on the Nelson Report, where Chris Nelson wrote that a high-ranking Japanese government official visited his office to say that, “With the appearance of the Yamaguchi report, Japanese conservatives now know that the South Koreans have been hypocritical, as they have cruelly [violated] women’s human rights. We believe that the South Koreans have lost all credibility in blaming Japan for the Japanese-military comfort woman issue.”
While this is an entirely reasonable sentiment, it would seem, what is baffling is the calamity that has befallen Yamaguchi, who labored so diligently to come up with his news scoop. The TBS headquarters on April 23rd dismissed Yamaguchi, who had dedicated his life to journalism, from his post as Washington bureau chief, and then punished him with a fifteen-day suspension before demoting him to the sales department selling local advertising time within the business wing of TBS.
Yamaguchi has received a great deal of support in response to Facebook posts such as, “I do not understand the real motivation behind the company’s [i.e., TBS] not reporting on the results of my investigation,” and, “I went ahead [with releasing the information] because I thought it was news that should be reported.” (6) TBS, for its part, should not be surprised if it finds itself subjected to the inevitable, albeit mistaken, criticism that it is “in cahoots with Dudden.”
In the Japanese-language edition of the Hankyoreh newspaper for June 9th, it was reported that there are plans to open, on August 15th in Daegu, the fourth Japanese-military comfort woman museum in South Korea. The funding is said to be coming from former comfort woman Kim Sun-ok, who died in 2010 leaving a gift of 5.5 million yen in her will, to which amount has been added donations from throughout the country.
1/ Yamaguchi Noriyuki, “Historical Scoop: The South Korean Military had Vietnamese Comfort Women,” Weekly Bunshun, April 2nd, 2015 issue (hereinafter abbreviated as “Yamaguchi essay”)
2/ Hankyoreh newspaper (Japanese-language edition), April 25th, 2015
3/ Nelson Report, March 26th, 2015
4/ Komori Yoshihisa report, in Weekly Bunshun, April 9th, 2015
5/ Information on American-military comfort stations during the Vietnam War from Susan Brownmiller and Cynthia Enloe, and quoted in Hata Ikuhiko, Comfort Women and Warzone Sex (Shinchō Sensho, 1999), pp. 171-172.
6/ J-CAST News, April 26th, 2015, “Evening Fuji,” April 25th, 2015
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