The History of Prostitution in Korea

Like anything in this world, that has a beginning as much as it has an end, the prostitution in Korea has its roots in deep history, and like in any other country, it developed side by side with the territories that covered this occupation and has past several events until it became what it is today – a massive industry of flesh, sweat and money.

The history of prostitution itself, dates from ancient times and it is without any doubt the oldest profession in the world. In Korea, before the modernization of the state, there were no cocktail bars, motel rooms or massage parlors to sell pleasures behind their walls, but a caste of ladies for the elite landholding classes, that performed sexual labor. Modern times and the modernization of Korea, made the first brothels to spread when the country first opened its port in 1876. In the same year, Sir H. Parkes, the British representative in Japan, wrote to the Home Office to tell them about the Japanese delegation’s trip to Korea. Amongst his information about the relatively unknown country he noted an amazing generalization. According to a member of the delegation, in Korea “all natural sons become priests and daughters prostitutes”. Among the women prostitutes, there were also males that had this occupation as a way of living, dancers and performers, usually young teen boys, who played the roles of women.

While prostitution flourished at the beginning of the 20th century, more like an open-door habit of an over-sexed state, where men often had concubines or second wives, the war and the U.S. military arrival at the half of the century, made this occupation a state affair – the authorities promoted women for prostitution to bring foreign currency into their borders. According to United States Forces Korea‘s policy, “Hiring prostitutes is incompatible with our military core values”, but in South Korea, most women who used to live around U.S. Army camps were prostitutes. Some women chose to become prostitutes. Other women were coerced into prostitution. Prostitutes for U.S. soldiers were esteemed to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy by South Koreans, they were also lowest status within the hierarchy of prostitution.

In 2006, a group of former prostitutes in South Korea have accused some of their country’s former leaders of encouraging them to have sex with the American soldiers who protected South Korea from North Korea. They also accuse past South Korean governments, and the United States military, of taking a direct hand in the sex trade from the 1960s through the 1980s, working together to build a testing and treatment system to ensure that prostitutes were disease-free for American troops. There is no doubt that the Korean authorities had a direct interference in the world of prostitution of that times. Even more, underneath, prostitution was a dark angel that provided sins as a trade for the well-being of the state. Kim Ae-ran, a 58 years old woman, said in a interview that “Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military”. Scholars on the issue say that the South Korean government was motivated in part by fears that the American military would leave, and that it wanted to do whatever it could to prevent that. But the women suggest that the government also viewed them as commodities to be used to shore up the country’s struggling economy in the decades after the Korean War. They say the government not only sponsored classes for them in basic English and etiquette — meant to help them sell themselves more effectively — but also sent bureaucrats to praise them for earning dollars when South Korea was desperate for foreign currency. The same woman that made her former government a pimp, also stated the following “They urged us to sell as much as possible to the G.I.’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots”. In one of the most incendiary claims, some women say that the American military police and South Korean officials regularly raided clubs from the 1960s through the 1980s looking for women who were thought to be spreading diseases. They picked out the women using the number tags the women say the brothels forced them to wear so the soldiers could more easily identify their sex partners. The Korean police would then detain the prostitutes who were thought to be ill, the women said, locking them up under guard in so-called monkey houses, where the windows had bars. There, the prostitutes were forced to take medications until they were well. The women, who are seeking compensation and an apology, have compared themselves to the so-called comfort women who have won widespread public sympathy for being forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. Whether prostitutes by choice, need or coercion, the women say they were all victims of government policies. “The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans … looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”, said another women, Ms. Jeon.

Six million American soldiers served in Korea between 1950 and 1971, and upward of one million South Korean women worked as “sex providers” for them in the “camptowns” that sprang up around U.S. bases, says Katharine H. S. Moon in “Sex among Allies”, a book that treats this subject, in which Moon demonstrates as well that conflict over prostitution played an especially pivotal role in U.S.-Korean relations in the early 1970s, when the authoritarian rulers of South Korea feared withdrawal of U.S. troops under the Nixon Doctrine. South Korean leaders, in rhetoric that eerily recalls the suffering of the “comfort women” who served the Japanese during World War II, sought to mobilize these prostitutes as “personal ambassadors” to Americans, seeking to instil in them the idea that they were performing patriotic acts in meeting the sexual needs of foreign soldiers and thus encouraging the U.S. army to stay in the country.

According to Wikipedia, The Korea Women’s Development Institute said that the sex trade in Korea was estimated to amount about 14 trillion South Korean won ($13 billion) in 2007, roughly 1.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The number of prostitutes dropped by 18 percent to 269,000 during the period. The sex trade involved 94 million transactions in 2007, down from 170 million in 2002. The amount of money traded for prostitution was over 14 trillion won, much less than 24 trillion won in 2002. Despite legal sanctions and police crackdowns, prostitution continues to flourish in South Korea, while sex workers continue to actively resist the state’s activities.

As a matter of choice or not, or as a matter of foreign business or as a domestic enterprise, prostitution in Korea and present times, South Korea, has always been a thrilling venture that has grown, intensified and amplified along with the state itself. While North Korea declares that prostitution allegedly doesn’t exist, her twin sister has 514,000 to 1.2 million women that participate in the prostitution industry world wide, but centered in the USA. As an occupation as old as the earth itself and as an occupation that will always sell, whether we like it or not, this activity will always be a necessary evil, a damsel in distress, criticized at its surface, but tolerated and encouraged in the underground heart of pleasures behind closed curtain.

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