Women's labor, sex work and U.S. military bases abroad

Commercial sex zones have developed around U.S. bases worldwide, and problems are particularly pronounced overseas

Published October 8, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Ted Aljibe)
(Getty/Ted Aljibe)

Excerpted with permission from "Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World" by David Vine. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Women’s labor, though often unacknowledged and overlooked, has long been essential to the workings of the U.S. military, as with most militaries across time and place. This has been true with women who wash the laundry, cook the food, and nurse injured soldiers back to health. This has been true with soldiers’ wives, who are expected to perform an outsized share of the childrearing and to create feelings of community on military bases. And it has also been true with sex. Throughout history, women’s sex work has been used to help make male troops happy—or at least happy enough to keep working for the military.

Base Nation

Commercial sex zones have developed around U.S. bases worldwide. Many look much the same, filled with liquor stores, fast-food outlets, tattoo parlors, bars and clubs, and prostitution in one form or another. The evidence is just outside the gates in places such as Baumholder and Kaiserslautern in Germany, and Kadena and Kin Town on Okinawa. Even during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been multiple reports of brothels and sex trafficking involving U.S. troops and contractors.

Domestic bases like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, have also given rise to redlight districts nearby. But the problems associated with the sex trade are particularly pronounced overseas — especially in South Korea, where “camptowns” that surround U.S. bases have become deeply entrenched in the country’s economy, politics, and culture. Dating to the 1945 U.S. occupation of Korea, when GIs casually bought sex with as little as a cigarette, they are at the center of an exploitative and profoundly disturbing sex industry.

“Stigmatized Twilight Zones”

As World War II came to a close, U.S. military leaders in Korea, just like their counterparts in Germany, worried about the interactions between American troops and local­women. “Americans act as though Koreans were a conquered nation rather than a liberated people,” wrote the office of the commanding general. The policy became “hands off Korean women”—but this did not include women in brothels, dance halls, and working the streets. Instead, with venereal disease and other communicable infections widespread, the U.S. military government created a VD Control Section that instituted regular inspections and treatment for “entertaining girls.” This category included licensed prostitutes, dancers, “bar girls,” and waitresses. Between May 1947 and July 1948, medical personnel examined almost fifteen thousand women.

Most troublingly, U.S. military authorities occupying Korea after the war took over some of the “comfort stations” that had been central to the Japanese war machine since the nineteenth century. During its conquest of territory across East Asia, the Japanese military forced hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, Okinawa and rural Japan, and other parts of Asia into sexual slavery, providing soldiers with “royal gifts” from the emperor. With the assistance of Korean officials, U.S. authorities continued the system absent formal slavery, but under conditions of exceedingly limited choice for the women involved.

The arrangements were further formalized after the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War. “The municipal authorities have already issued the approval for establishing UN comfort stations in return for the Allied Forces’ toil,” wrote the Pusan Daily. “In a few days, five stations will be set up in the downtown areas of new and old Masan. The authorities are asking citizens to give much cooperation in coming days.”

After the signing of the 1953 Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (still the legal foundation for U.S. troops’ access to U.S. and Korean bases), camptowns boomed. In the 1950s alone, eighteen new camptowns were created. As the political scientist and camptown expert Katherine Moon explains, they were “virtually colonized space where Korean sovereignty was suspended and replaced by the U.S. military authorities.” The livelihoods of Koreans in the camptowns were almost completely dependent on GIs’ buying power, and sex work was a core part of the camptown economy. The camptowns became “deeply stigmatized twilight zones” known for sex, crime, and violence. By 1958, there were an estimated three hundred thousand sex workers in a country whose entire population was just 22 million. More than half worked in camptowns. In the middle of downtown Seoul, where the Army occupied the 640-acre Yongsan Garrison originally built by Japanese colonizers, the Itaewon neighborhood filled with bars and brothels. GIs named it “Hooker Hill.”

“Cohabitating marriage,” resembling European-style colonial concubinage, also became popular. “Many men have their steadies,” commented one military chaplain. “Some of them own their girls, complete with hooch [small house] and furniture. Before leaving Korea, they sell the package to a man who is just coming in.”

After a military junta seized power in South Korea in a 1961 coup, Korean officials created legally recognized “special districts” for businesses catering to U.S. troops and off-limits to Koreans. American military police could arrest sex workers without health inspection cards, and U.S. doctors treated women with sexually transmitted diseases at detention centers given names such as “the monkey house.” In 1965, 85 percent of GIs surveyed reported having “been with” or “been out with” a prostitute.

Camptowns and prostitution thus became critical parts of a South Korean economy struggling to emerge from the devastation of war. Government documents show male officials strategizing to encourage GIs to spend their money on women in Korea rather than Japan during leave time. Officials offered classes in basic English and etiquette to encourage women to sell themselves more effectively and earn more money. “They urged us to sell as much as possi­ble to the G.I.’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots,’ ” recounts former sex worker Ae-ran Kim. “Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military.”

There was indeed considerable competition for GI dollars in Okinawa, South Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. In Okinawa, prostitution was legal through the end of the U.S. occupation in 1972. Within three months of the start of the Korean War, Okinawan authorities created the Yaejima Approved Prostitution Zone, and by 1969, 7,400 women—about 2 percent of all Okinawan females between ten and sixty years old—were involved in prostitution around the bases. Meanwhile, the U.S. war in Vietnam helped transform Thailand’s Pattaya Beach into one of the world’s largest red-light districts. It was a favored spot for R&R, or, as some called it, I&I—intoxication and intercourse. When the military withdrew from South Vietnam, it left behind an estimated 700,000 sex workers.

“Prostitution was obviously a racket,” a U.S. official at the embassy in Seoul told me, describing the time when he’d been stationed in Korea in the early 1980s. “It kind of had a dirty feel to it.” And “even the married guys” were taking part. (Unlike in Japan, Germany, Italy, and many other base locations, 90 percent of troops on tours of duty in Korea have, until recently, been unaccompanied by families because the Korean War has technically never ended.) “It was kind of a bonding thing to go out and bar hop. You’d go from bar to bar to bar.”

“The women were readily available,” the official told me. And they wouldn’t ask you to buy them a drink—they asked you to take them home. “There was kind of a joke” where guys “would take out a $20 bill and lick it and stick it to their forehead.” They said that’s all it took to get a girl.

Today, many of the women who once worked in the system still live in the camptowns, so strong is the stigma attached to them. One of the sex workers, who would identify herself to a reporter only as “Jeon,” moved to a camptown in 1956 as an eighteen-year-old war orphan. Within a few years she became pregnant, but she gave up her son for adoption in the United States, where she hoped he would have a better life. In 2008, now a U.S. soldier, he returned to find her. Jeon was surviving on public assistance and selling things from the trash. She refused his help and said he should forget about her. “I failed as a mother,” Jeon says. “I have no right to depend on him now.”

“Women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she says. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”

“Juicy Girls”

Since the mid-1990s, the dramatic growth in the South Korean economy has largely allowed Korean women to escape the exploitative conditions of the camptown bars and clubs. In their place, Filipinas and, to a lesser extent, women from Russia and former Soviet republics have generally replaced Korean women as the primary camptown sex workers. The South Korean government’s creation of the E-6 “entertainer” visa has allowed Korean “promoters” to import Filipinas and other women on a legal basis. The E-6 visa is the only Korean visa for which an HIV test is mandatory; venereal disease tests are required every three months. Over 90 percent of women with the visas are estimated to work in the sex industry.

The promoters who recruit women often promise to find them work as singers or dancers—applicants must submit videos demonstrating singing ability. The agents then bring the women into South Korea, charging them a fee that the women must pay off by working in camptowns and other bars and clubs.

The women sign a contract in their home country specifying an employer and a salary, but they often end up in different clubs and working for a lower salary than promised. The promoters and owners often charge hidden fees or deduct money from the women’s salaries, keeping them in perpetual debt. Often the housing and food promised in contracts is little more than a decrepit shared room above the bar and ramen noodles. In some clubs, owners force women to perform sex work in “VIP rooms” or other locations. In other clubs, indebtedness and psychological coercion force the women into sex. Speaking little Korean, the women have little recourse. Promoters and bar owners often hold the women’s passports. Leaving their place of employment would subject them to immediate arrest, fines, imprisonment, or deportation by the South Korean state and potentially violent retribution from those to whom they are indebted.

In 2002, a Cleveland television station exposed how military police officers were protecting the bars and the GIs in them, and interacting with women they knew had been trafficked and sold at auction. “You know something is wrong when the girls are asking you to buy them bread,” one soldier said. “They can’t leave the clubs. They barely feed them.” Another commented, “There are only Americans in these clubs. If they’re bringing these women over here to work for us, they should get paid a fair wage. They should have the right to a day off.” (Most of the women get one day off a month.) In a 2002 report, the State Department confirmed that South Korea was a destination for trafficked women. And in 2007, three researchers concluded that U.S. bases in South ­Korea have become “a hub for the transnational trafficking of women from the Asia Pacific and Eurasia to South Korea and the United States.”

In the wake of these revelations, there has been growing public criticism of prostitution around U.S. bases in South Korea. Feminists, religious groups, and congress members demanded change. The South Korean government began a crackdown, and the Pentagon quickly announced a “zero tolerance” policy for trafficking. In 2004, the South Korean government outlawed prostitution, and the following year President George W. Bush signed an executive order making prostitution illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The military began more strictly monitoring bars and clubs in the camptowns and placing those believed to be involved in trafficking on “off-limits” lists for military personnel.

At least one vet told me, though, that lists like these give troops at bases ideas about where to go rather than where not to go. And instead of shutting down prostitution, bars and clubs have simply responded with new tactics to vaguely disguise the nature of their business. At so-called juicy bars, for instance, men buy small glasses of supposedly alcoholic juice for scantily clad “juicy girls,” most of whom have been trafficked from the Philippines or the former Soviet Union. The rules differ slightly from bar to bar, but basically, if a man buys enough juice, he can arrange to take a woman out. There’s no explicit exchange of money for sex at the bar, but once the two are off the premises, a deal is done.

The subterfuge is fairly superficial. After the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper published another exposé, a soldier who blogs about the military in Korea wrote, “Here is some shocking news for everyone, the Stars & Stripes has investigated and confirmed that (gasp!) juicy bars are fronts for prostitution!”

Just outside Camp Stanley and the Uijeongbu camptown, a former mamasan, Mrs. Kim, told me how the new system works. If you’re a man, “you’ve got to buy her a drinky,” she said. They cost $20 to $40 each, or even $100 at some clubs. “One drinky, twenty minutes,” she continued. The mamasan will tell you to buy more when your time’s up.

If the man buys enough, Kim said—usually at least $150 in juicys—he can ask, “Tomorrow can I take you lunchy?” He also pays the mamasan a “bar fine” to let the woman miss the next day of work, offsetting what she would make selling juicys. Sometimes, a man will pay a bar fine to leave immediately—often for a hotel. In either case, the man and the woman usually negotiate a separate price for sex.

“Officially they do not say ‘prostitution’ ” when they go to lunch, Kim said. “Where they go, no one knows. It’s her choice.” Maybe the next day they go to buy clothes or shoes. “Later what they do, nobody knows.”

“She has a choice if she goes to lunch?” I asked.

“It’s her choice,” replied Mrs. Kim. But if she says no, the man “is crying,” and “he doesn’t come to [the] club . . . ​They don’t come no more.” “Shit!” exclaimed Mrs. Kim, imitating the men.

I imagined how an owner might say “Shit!” too, after losing a customer—and the pressure that that might place on a woman’s choice, on top of the financial pressure to pay off debts.

Youngnim Yu, the director of Durebang, or “My Sister’s Place,” a South Korean organization that has assisted women in the sex industry since 1986, joined our conversation. While the rules differ at every bar, she explained, a woman usually has to bring in a minimum of around $200 a night. If she doesn’t make the minimum, the owner charges her a “bar fine” as well. She has to go with a man to make up the difference.

Once a month, the promoter who imported the women comes for their salaries. The bar owner pays him a percentage of drink sales, and the promoter usually takes at least half. He tells the government that he pays the women South Korea’s minimum monthly wage, about $900. Typically, the women actually make around $300 to $500 a month.

“They Are Scared”

Around noon on a scorching hot day in July, I was on the streets of the camptown in Songtan, outside the gates of Osan Air Base. Songtan is one of as many as 180 camptowns in South Korea ­today. Within four hundred yards of Osan’s main gate, there are some ninety-two bars—about one every twenty-six feet. In a 2007 count, there were twenty-one hotels in the area with rooms by the hour.

I was in Songtan to accompany two women from Youngnim Yu’s organization Durebang, whom I will call Valeria and So-hee. They were there to reach out to sex workers in this “special tourist district” and offer the organization’s support.

Special tourist districts are technically off-limits to Koreans not working in them, so most of the ­people on the streets were from Osan. With the bars and clubs still quiet at midday, we saw airmen and ­women out walking in their uniforms and a few casually dressed families with strollers. Some men in civilian clothes walked alongside young Filipinas toward fast-food outlets and other restaurants. A few men walked hand in hand with Korean women.

Every few minutes, we came across a Filipina woman. Some were with children. When we did, Valeria and So-hee offered them a Durebang business card written in Tagalog, some toiletries, and a “korea” shirt donated by supporters. On Songtan’s main pedestrian walkway, we stopped to talk with other outreach workers near Club Join Us, advertising “Filipino Food / Filipina Women.” A couple of young Filipinas walked by, saying they were in a rush. Two more walked hurriedly from a Western Union bearing a sign proclaiming cheaper to send to the philippines! in Tagalog.

I asked Valeria what the women discuss with her. They complain of not receiving salaries, she said. Some talk about being hurt by owners or customers. Some want to get out but don’t know how. Most have gone deep into debt to get a visa to go to Korea, and most are supporting children and other family members back home. “They cling to the clubs,” she said. The clubs provide apartments, usually on the premises of the bar. Most owners allow the women to leave for just two hours a day. Otherwise, she said, “someone is always watching.”

Most of the women don’t know Korean, and they’re illegal if they leave the bar, Valeria said. Durebang can provide some legal assistance and, in some cases, financial help. “We cannot do anything” about their visa status, said Youngnim, who had joined our group. So if they leave a club, she said, they’re likely to be deported or put in an immigration jail.

“There are some nasty clubs where women are locked in, but mostly women don’t leave because they are scared,” Veronica, a twenty-four-year-old Rus­sian, told one reporter. A club owner in Songtan agreed, saying, “Some of the women are locked up. If a fire breaks out, they can’t escape. But the main method of coercing them is psychological. They know no one. They have no money. The only way they can get money is by prostituting themselves.” Reydelus Conferido, the labor attaché at the Philippine embassy, says he tries to explain to people, “If you take somebody far from home, under certain conditions, you can get them to do whatever you want . . . ​It could happen to anybody.”

Youngnim explained that the women often “try to get out of the clubs” by finding a GI. It’s a hard life with a different client every day. So they go and live with GI boyfriends. But “practically 90 percent of the women are abandoned,” she said. Many get pregnant and have babies. Some get married, and then the soldier disappears without a word when his tour is done in South Korea, leaving the woman in financial and legal trouble. Having left their clubs, many women are suddenly without a sponsor required to live in Korea. Sometimes they are stuck in legal limbo without an official divorce, and some can’t claim child support. In other cases, Youngnim said, the men get the women to sign documents they don’t understand, and these turn out to be divorce papers that leave them with nothing.

Since the 1970s, GIs have also been involved in sham marriages used to bring Korean women to the United States to perform sex work in Korean massage parlors. Korean divorcées from legitimate marriages have also been vulnerable to recruitment into massage parlors. In fact, researchers and law enforcement officers suggest that most Korean women working in U.S. massage parlors were once married to GIs.

Later in the evening, after I left the Durebang outreach workers, I met a woman who said she was from Okinawa. With her flowing all-white clothes, very pale skin, and long black hair, she looked like a ghost. She said she was “a bum,” pointing to a large duffel bag and several stuffed plastic bags laid out on the sidewalk. She said she needed help. She had been married to a sailor, but now she couldn’t get her money out of the Navy’s bank. They wouldn’t let her on base anymore. They wouldn’t let her onto Osan either. She had “bad karma,” she said. “Bad karma.”

There have been more than half a million marriages between Asian women and male GIs since World War II, but language barriers, stereotypes and prejudice, familial disapproval, cultural differences, and other challenges combine to make them particularly fragile. Military personnel tend to be very young when they marry: almost 20 percent of enlisted Army soldiers are married, compared to just 5 percent of civilians their age. In some ways, it should be no surprise that an estimated 80 percent of GIs’ Asian-­American marriages end in divorce.

One hears similar stories about American soldiers, like men in other militaries, abandoning women and children throughout the world: Japan, Honduras, Germany, and just about everywhere ­else one finds a base. Between failed marriages and GIs simply leaving mothers and children overseas, U.S. bases abroad have produced generations of abandoned offspring. In Okinawa, GIs have abandoned an estimated four thousand children; many have ended up in orphanages and foster homes. Approximately ninety thousand “illegitimate” children were born during the occupation of West Germany alone, in part because German-American marriages were banned until December 1946. And U.S. bases in Germany continue to produce abandoned offspring. Indeed, a number of soccer players who have played on the U.S. men’s national team grew up never knowing their American servicemen fathers, who left their mothers in Germany.

By David Vine

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