Comfort Women; The Truth About Prostitutes During The Korean Conflict

In what the New York Times calls a landmark ruling, a South Korean court recently ruled that the government had broken the law by catering to American troops with detained prostitutes.

The patronizing of prostitutes, sometimes called “comfort women,” was a daily occurrence. This practice started before the arrival of U.S. troops, created by the Japanese during World War II, but our troops in the Korean Conflict played along. The United States has yet to accept any responsibility in the practice.

The official position of the U.S. Military forces in Korea (USFK) maintains that it is illegal for service people to patronize prostitutes in Korea. The Republic of Korea considers prostitution a crime. That puts both countries on the wrong side of the issue, one that is, in all likelihood, still in practice by some means.

Before someone accuses me of sitting on my high horse about prostitution, let the record show that we are not talking about a mutual agreement between two consenting adults. Many if not most of these women were not of a legal age, nor were they willing.

The practice of using women to appease soldiers’ desires in Korea may go back further than WWI, but the creation of “comfort women,” began during that war, then continued well into the ’70s. The negative impact on generations of women is unfathomable but also unconscionable.

Roots in WWII

When the Japanese occupied the Korea peninsula during World War II, they had a problem with Japanese soldiers raping women in China. This wasn’t good for the Japanese-Chinese relationship but more prescient to the Japanese military leaders, the soldiers were spreading venereal diseases. That wasn’t good for anyone.

To stave off the incidences of VD, in 1931 they created brothels. At first, they filled those brothels with volunteers, women over 21 years old. Meanwhile, the war raged on. By 1937, regulations for the brothels were less of a concern to anyone who would care.

Tricked or enslaved, girls as young as 10 filled the brothels where operators mandated they serve men at a rate of one every 30 minutes, upwards of 40 soldiers in one day. Conditions for the girls were far from comforting. If they fought or fled, beatings followed.

By our best estimates, the practice affected 200,000 Korean girls. Most of the survivors are now in their twilight years, numbering fewer than fifty still alive.

Japan has since copped to these atrocities during WWII, apologized and expressed remorse for their involvement. Unfortunately for the women affected, most of them have passed after living lives of abuse.

Were there a time to make this right, could one ever make right something so awful, it passed decades ago.

Korean Conflict

The arrival of U.S. troops in 1945 did not end the practice of comfort women but extended the practice. It’s safe to assume that for some of the women, that was the life they’d come to know.

That doesn’t mean it was the life they would have chosen, given other options. That also doesn’t mean new girls were volunteers in the practice.

The law of the day was unconcerned with what was happening in these places. Despite the law against the practice, brothels lined the streets outside the army bases. Nobody was enforcing the law.

The accusation made by the women now attempting to uncover this atrocity is that the Korean people were oblivious to the government’s involvement.

The government sponsored classes for the women to learn English and Western etiquette. Women whom they suspected as sick, they detained by police, fed medication until they were healthy again.

While that sounds like a lovely act of benevolence, it was for the benefit of the soldiers, not the women.

For the South Korean government of the 1960s and ‘70s, keeping the USFK in Korea meant security for the nation. Keeping the soldiers happy was part of the plan.

Like the U.S. government, the South Korean government has never admitted their part in the practice.

Post Traumatic Stress

Statue dedicated to the comfort women of Korea |

Some of the women who lived as comfort women were able to leave that life after the Korean Conflict to lead somewhat normal lives. Even for the best case scenarios, they lived with the haunting memories of one could only describe as slavery.

The post-traumatic stress disorder of war, it seems, can reach beyond the shells into the lives of civilians.

As this conflict is seven decades in the rearview, most of these women have passed. Some of them died early from the stress of the abuse. Of the few that remain, what they want is an acknowledgment of the atrocities suffered in their lives.

This recent court ruling awarded 57 of 120 former prostitutes compensation, but what the women were after was an apology from the government.

There is no unringing the discordant bell that resonates in their lives. I doubt an apology will make them feel better, but that would at least inscribe a footnote in history that this happened, that it was wrong, that it should never happen again.