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RIGHTS-SOUTH KOREA: Prostitution Thrives with U.S. Military Presence

Zoltán Dujisin

SEOUL, Jul 7 2009 (IPS) - With the presence of U.S. soldiers, flesh trade is flourishing near the Camp Stanley Camptown close to Seoul.

Since 1945, U.S. troops have been stationed in the Korean peninsula, with their current strength estimated to be 28,500. The country plunged into civil war between 1950 and 1953 and since then, U.S. troops have remained there, claiming to act as a deterrent against North Korea, the country’s communist neighbour. Prostitution in the region is a direct result of their presence, local observers say.

Russian and Chinese troops also had troops stationed on the Korean peninsula in the aftermath of the civil conflict, but “have since left the area while U.S. troops are still here, in almost 100 military bases,” Yu Young Nim, the head of a local non-governmental organisation which provides counseling, medical and legal care for sex workers, told IPS.

Yu Young Nim’s office is located at the Camp Stanley Camptown, a few metres away from local Korean restaurants, home in the 1980s to U.S.-imported Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway logos. Locals attest to the slow decay of a town.

In front of one of these restaurants, sits a 36-year old former “mama-san”, which in Korea denotes women supervising sex-work establishments. Like many other retired sex-workers, she looks older than her age, and has decided to open a restaurant.

The “mama-san” prefers catering to U.S. soldiers instead of the more demanding Korean clientele.

“G.I.s eat their food without complaints,” she told IPS. “Koreans always expect to be served like kings.”

It was in camps such as these that a new dish called Pudaettsigae entered the Korean diet: Poor Koreans took ingredients such as sausage, beans, processed cheese from leftovers at the U.S. camp and mixed them with home-grown ingredients.

After being a sex worker for much of her youth, during which she had a son with a U.S. soldier, like other “mama-sans” she opened her own club, where she employed other girls. She had to shut shop three years ago due to declining incomes.

“If the base closes, I’ll try moving to the [United] States; it would be good for my son,” she says. Her son lives in Korea and speaks the language well enough, but got his primary education in English. “I don’t think he could attend a Korean university, but the U.S. universities are too expensive for us.”

She could only wish his father was there to help.

“I have some contact with the grandfather, but barely with the father. He doesn’t send my son gifts, not even a Christmas card. He has so much more money than me and doesn’t do anything for his son,” she says. “My son [believes] he has no father.”

Several U.S. soldiers have married local prostitutes, in many cases impregnating them, only to later abandon them.

“Even in those cases of couples living together, these women can be easily abandoned by their husbands or boyfriends, and are victims of physical, mental and financial abuse,” says Young Nim.

“The women mostly come from broken families, backgrounds of sexual abuse or domestic violence, and there is no protection from victims of these crimes,” he says. “After entering the prostitution business they can’t get out.”

U.S. officials have made statements condemning prostitution but have done little to stop it.

“They think this system should exist for the U.S. soldiers. Superficially they stand for a zero tolerance policy but practically they know what is going on and use this system,” Young Nim told IPS.

There has been a reduction in prostitution of Korean women, which “has more to do with the work of non-governmental organisations and the fact that Korea has developed economically,” while “there is no contact with the U.S. authorities. They have a legal office and counseling centre but only for their own soldiers and relatives.”

After the negative publicity, the top military officials of the U.S. army have slowly became more outspoken in their condemnation of prostitution. U.S. soldiers were discouraged from frequenting traditional entertainment districts in central Seoul, although locals say that did little to stop them.

A turning point was the violent murder of a prostitute in Dongducheon in 1992. The finger of suspicion pointed at U.S. troops, though action against them is difficult given they enjoy a special legal status since 1945.

While prostitution is illegal in South Korea, camp towns are practically exempted from crackdowns, and US military anti-prostitution policies have forced these places to minimize their visibility.

Recent anti-prostitution laws are addressing the problems of Korean women, although there is disagreement among local activists regarding their effectiveness. However, they are effective in keeping out foreign sex workers; if arrested by the police they face deportation.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 come annually from countries like Philippines. While Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh women were also known for being trafficked into Korea in the past, now 90 percent of the women working as prostitutes hail from Southeast Asian countries.

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