Korea's other 'comfort women' seek payouts for serving in brothels for US troops

Veterans of brothels for US troops seek redress, as Seoul presses Japan to atone for sex slavery

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 8:18am

Cho Myung-ja ran away from home as a teenager to escape a father who beat her, and found her way to the red light district in a South Korean town that hosts a large US army garrison.

There, in the early 1960s, her pimp sold her to one of the brothels allowed by the government to serve American soldiers.

"It was a hard life and we got sick," Cho, 76, said in an interview in her cluttered room in a shack outside Camp Humphreys, a busy US military garrison in the town of Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.

On June 25, sixty-four years after the Korean war broke out, Cho joined 122 surviving "comfort women", as they were called, in a lawsuit against their government to reclaim, they say, human dignity and proper compensation.

The suit comes as an embarrassing distraction for the South Korean government, which has pushed Japan to properly atone for what it says were second world war atrocities including forcing women, many of them Korean, to serve as sex slaves for its soldiers.

The women claim the South Korean government trained them and worked with pimps to run a sex trade through the 1960s and 1970s for US troops, encouraged women to work as prostitutes and violated their human rights. They are claiming 10 million won (HK$76,000) for each plaintiff.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family declined to comment on the lawsuit. The US military in South Korea said it was aware of reports of the lawsuit.

"USFK has a zero tolerance for prostitution and human trafficking," a US Forces in Korea spokesman said. "Prostitution and human trafficking are cruel, demeaning and incompatible with our military core values."

The South Korean government was desperate to keep US troops in the 1960s after a devastating but inconclusive war with North Korea and wanted the women to serve as "patriots" and "civilian diplomats".

The virtuous-sounding titles did little to reflect the life they led. They say they were forced by the South Korean government to undergo degrading check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases and if the test was positive, locked up until they were "fit" to work.

"To make sure we didn't pass on some disease to foreigners, we were tested twice a week, and if it looked abnormal, we would be locked up on the fourth floor, unlocking the door only at meal times, and some people broke their legs trying to escape," Cho said amid the frequent hum of military aircraft.

Afterwards, they say they were neglected and forgotten, left to live out their lives in poverty, stigmatised for having worked as prostitutes.

The lawsuit is a culmination of work by several small and regional NGOs that came together in 2008 to gather their testimonies and seek legal advice.