It’s a long-buried part of South Korean history: women compelled by force, trickery or desperation into prostitution, with the complicity of their own leaders.
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Photographs by Jean Chung
Choe Sang-Hun examined unsealed government documents and interviewed six women who worked in camp towns around American military bases in South Korea for this article.
May 2, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
“DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — When Cho Soon-ok was 17 in 1977, three men kidnapped and sold her to a pimp in Dongducheon, a town north of Seoul.
She was about to begin high school, but instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a ballerina, she was forced to spend the next five years under the constant watch of her pimp, going to a nearby club for sex work. Her customers: American soldiers.
The euphemism “comfort women” typically describes Korean and other Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. But the sexual exploitation of another group of women continued in South Korea long after Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945 — and it was facilitated by their own government.
There were “special comfort women units” for South Korean soldiers, and “comfort stations” for American-led U.N. troops during the Korean War. In the postwar years, many of these women worked in gijichon, or “camp towns,” built around American military bases.”