A Brutal Sex Trade Built for American Soldiers

Author: Choe Sang-Hun for The New York Times


t’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.

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.

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The Japan-South Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Agreement Survives (Barely)

In the press conference on January 9, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said her government will not seek the renegotiation of the December 2015 agreement it reached with Japan regarding the comfort women issue. Her official announcement ended months of speculation on whether President Moon Jae-in, who has been openly critical of the agreement since he was a presidential candidate, would push for the revision or renegotiation of the deal that his predecessor Park Geun-hye reached two years ago.

The speculation has particularly intensified since December 27, 2017, when the Special Task Force, an independent investigative group appointed by Moon Jae-in to look into the 2015 deal, announced its findings. The Task Force concluded that the 2015 agreement was flawed, criticizing the South Korean government for (among other things) not conducting direct hearings with the “comfort women” survivors.

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Roughly one year and one week ago, the governments of Japan and South Korea came to an agreement over the issue of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery of Korean women — known euphemistically as the “comfort women.” Per the agreement, Japan apologized and agree to contribute 1 billion yen (approximately $8.3 million at the time) to set up a foundation under the South Korean government to support the living victims.

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On December 28, Japan and South Korea reached an agreement on how to address the so-called “comfort women” issue.  While the implementation of the agreement will be the key, this agreement is extremely important in preventing the issue from derailing the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul.

The agreement was announced in a form of parallel statements issued by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byong-sei, after months of consultations between senior officials from both sides. There are several significant elements in this agreement, for which both Japanese and Korean officials deserve credit.