The U.S. Troops and Military Prostitution in South Korea

The U.S. Troops and Military Prostitution in South Korea

Article by Katarzyna Szpargala.

Abstract: This paper examines the U.S. military and military prostitution practices in South Korea from 1945 until 2018. Military camptowns in South Korea are part of the colonial legacy, and with camptowns came military prostitution. For Koreans, it has been a taboo subject for a long time, and women forced into prostitution were treated as trash or pariahs. Looking through the history of the U.S.–South Korea relations, we can notice how these practices were built on political and economic disparities between these two countries. Moreover, this paper also analyzes how military prostitution practices in South Korea were connected to gender and racial discrimination.

Keywords: South Korea, Military Prostitution, Gender Discrimination, U.S. Army
Header image “Off Limits” by Don O’Brien is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

For a few years, the debates about gender equality have been on the rise. People are challenging gender roles and masculine/feminine division. However, military and prostitution are still strongly perceived as male-dominated areas and playgrounds respectively, and the violation of women’s rights by the military is often ignored and withheld from public knowledge.

There are many voices urging governments to acknowledge that military prostitution is a violation of human rights and to ban military personnel from using women. However, as political scientist Katherine H.S. Moon noticed, “where there are soldiers, there are women who exist for them” (Moon, 2009, 1). Military prostitution is a long-standing “tradition” whose purpose is to provide entertainment for soldiers and keep their morale and fighting spirit high. Thus it is a common practice of the locals and governments to provide women to the soldiers for R&R (rest and recreation) purposes. However, this practice and “tradition” is strongly connected to patriarchal domination and gender discrimination.

Suzuyu Takazato, Yayori Matsui, and Aida Santos conducted research and established that military prostitution in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines is a complicated system that involves local and national governments, political repressions, economic inequalities, gender discrimination and many more factors (as cited in Moon, 2009). Thus, when talking about military prostitution in Asia, we cannot focus only on gender discrimination, as factors such as racial discrimination, a legacy of colonialism and economic and political disparities also play a significant role in constructing this practice.

The American army is now a stable part of South Korea, its history, politics, and national security. Together with the U.S. soldiers and bases, the military camptown prostitution became its permanent component as well. The U.S. camptown is a legacy of colonialism, and so is American army prostitution. Despite Korea’s anti-prostitution laws, the Korean government has tolerated and allowed military prostitution in camptowns from the very beginning. According to Lee (as cited in Lee, 2018), during the rule of the U.S. Army Military Government in 1945-1948, the Korean government accepted and regulated military prostitution. The majority of practices connected to prostitution, such as compulsory venereal disease examinations of women, were a legacy of Japanese colonialism. Military prostitution for a long time was a taboo subject for Koreans. Moreover, women who were working as prostitutes were treated as a necessary evil and called many derogatory names such as “Western whores” (kor. yanggalbo) or “Western princess” (kor. yanggongju) (Lee, 2018).

The purpose of this article is to examine the history, from the end of the Second World War until 2018 when the Korean court ruled that the Korean government encouraged and supported the U.S. military prostitution and violated women’s human rights. This paper will analyze how Korean women were sacrificed by the Korean government to assure national security and political and economic stability. Moreover, the examination of how these practices were built on gender and racial discrimination and economic and political inequality between South Korea and the U.S. will be introduced as well.

Women in the Military

Female labor for the military has been either invisible or ignored through the years, but it’s impossible to deny that their work has been essential to armies and countries, not only as soldiers or pilots but also as nurses, cooks, laundry workers, and so on. However, there is also another part of military culture in which women are a huge part – military prostitution.

Since the beginning, women and their bodies were treated as a tool for keeping troops satisfied and happy. Many were forced into prostitution, not only by being trafficked or tricked into it but by many other reasons: poverty, debt bondage, or different social or economic situations.

The military is still a predominantly male field with strongly visible patriarchy. Military prostitution is not only gender discrimination as it’s connected to patriarchal and sexist practices, but often it’s also related to racial/ethnic discrimination, promotes political power disparities between countries, and economic inequalities, among citizens and migrants.

1965 South Korea ~ US Army Bus

1965 South Korea ~ US Army Bus” by Bryan Dorrough is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

The U.S. Army and the History of Military Prostitution in South Korea

The practice of providing women for the army is a long-standing “tradition” that can be easily traced to ancient history. Looking at the U.S. military and its practice of military prostitution in Asia, it is obvious how the U.S. army inherited the regulations and practices from European colonial empires. For instance, the British Empire created licensed brothels and regulated medical examination of sex workers in their colonies; later, the U.S. established similar rules in South Korea (Moon, 2015). These practices and laws are connected to not only discrimination against women but also racial discrimination. Women of color in colonies were treated as suitable for prostitution, as it was believed that their culture is inferior to the culture of white colonizationists (Moon, 2015). The belief in the superiority of the U.S. was also visible in the treatment of South Korean women.

Since the end of World War II in 1945, the U.S. army has been a permanent element of South Korea. Currently, roughly 30 000 U.S. troops are stationed in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula (O’Hanlon, 2019).

In South Korea prostitution is illegal, and the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice has criminalized prostitution as well; however, some exceptions were allowed already in the 1960s (Moon, 2015).

During and after the Korean War (1950-1953) and since the signing of Korea – U.S. Mutual Defence Treaty in 1953, the U.S. has expanded its military bases, simultaneously the camptowns (kor. kijichon) grew around them (Vine, 2011; Moon, 2015). Following Katherina H.S. Moon, since the beginning in camptowns, it’s the U.S. military that holds real power, not the Korean government (as cited in Vine, 2011). Moreover, in the 1950s South Korean government agreed and established the R&R centers for U.S. troops (Hughes et al., 2007.), and in 1957 there were many bars and clubs offering women in big cities near U.S. bases (Moon, 2015). It’s worth mentioning that prostitution at that time was medically supervised and that at the end of the 1950s the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs established 89 venereal disease clinics, and over 40 clinics have been built near the U.S. bases (Moon, 2010). The 1960s were the heyday for the camptowns prostitution (Moon, 2015). Park Chung Hee’s regime contributed to the development of camptowns. Following Pak (as cited in Lee, 2018), in 1962, over 100 “special districts” were established, including 32 military camptowns where prostitution was legal and monitored by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Law. Prostitution was beneficial to South Korea as the foreign currency was useful for the Korean economy and industrialization. For instance, according to the Department of Tourism and Transportation of Kyŏnggi Province in 1970, military prostitutes earned $8 million annually (Lee, 2018). Their contribution to economic growth is undeniable.

South Korean economic growth and democratization also affected migrant women working in the camptowns. In the late 1980s, there was a significant change in the number of Korean and migrant sex workers. Until the late 1980s, most of the sex workers were Korean citizens, however later, the amount of the foreign sex workers increased significantly, and slowly the females from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union have replaced Korean female sex workers (Moon, 2010). The South Korean government has created E-6 visas, that were given to women coming to Korea as “entertainers” (Vine, 2011). Women who were given the E-6 visa were promised artistic jobs, e.g. dancer or singer; however, most of them ended up in the prostitution system, they were charged a fee and kept in debt (Vine, 2011; Moon, 2015).

As mentioned above, political power in the mutual relation between the U.S. and South Korea plays a significant role in military prostitution and taking legal actions against U.S. troops. Due to the biased Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by the U.S. and South Korea in 1966, taking legal steps against U.S. troops that have committed a crime in the Republic of Korea is complicated. Furthermore, this agreement protects the U.S. soldiers not only from their crimes but also from taking responsibility for their children. The majority of the U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea are young male soldiers who serve short-term duties and whose families are in the USA (Moon, 2015). In the early 2000s, as a response to numerous scandals associated with the U.S. army, human trafficking and sexual abuse of women, new curfews and restrictions were introduced, the U.S. Department of Defence announced the new zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking and prostitution (Vine, 2011; Moon, 2009). In 2004, the South Korean government outlawed prostitution near military bases, and the U.S. government criminalized prostitution in 2005 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Vine, 2011). However, it didn’t solve sexual abuse, prostitution, and trafficking problems. Bars and clubs might be more strictly monitored, but prostitution didn’t magically disappear. It is just better hidden.

Moreover, to avoid prostitution charges, the U.S. soldiers started relationships with female sex workers, which often resulted in women giving birth to offsprings. This situation is another problem, single mothers with mixed-race children and almost zero chances to win a battle of child support, as the SOFA doesn’t regulate child support for abandoned or separated partners of American soldiers (Moon, 2015). In the 1960s Korean women who had a child with the U.S. soldiers were poorly treated, and their children were often called derogatory names (Cheng, 2010). In the 1990s, Korean society started to be more open-minded regarding mixed-race children as they were more visible in the public sphere and on television (Cheng, 2010). However, until now, Korean society can be prejudiced towards single mothers, especially if their children are mixed-race.

The U.S. military and military prostitution in South Korea became a visible issue for the public on July 25, 2014. A lawsuit against the Korean government was brought to the Seoul District Court by over 100 former prostitutes (Lee, 2018). The Korean government was charged with supporting and regulating U.S. military prostitution. The former prostitutes demanded from the government to recognize their crime in this practice, financial compensation and official apologies (Lee, 2018).

In 2017, the Seoul District Court partially affirmed the demand of former sex workers in the military camptowns. The court ordered the state to pay compensation of 5 million won to 57 plaintiffs for the physical and psychological damage (Kingston, 2017). Katherine H.S. Moon criticized the outcome of the hearing as the court didn’t rule that women’s human rights were violated in this practice (as cited in Kingston, 2017).

However, in the following year, Seoul High Court acknowledged the responsibility of the state in the U.S. military prostitution in South Korea and that the Korean government did violate women’s human rights by operating the military camptowns and forcing women into prostitution under the false motivation of patriotic duties (Kim, 2018). The court ruled that the Korean government at that time encouraged and justified prostitution near the U.S. bases in order to maintain the political alliance with the U.S. and for economic reasons, such as foreign currency earnings (Kim, 2018). The state had to pay 7 million won to 74 plaintiffs, and 3 million won to another 43 as a recompensation (Kim, 2018).


The U.S. military camptowns are a harsh legacy of the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. While both South Korea and the U.S. Army have an official policy of zero-tolerance on prostitution and strongly prohibited their soldiers from being involved in prostitution, the soldiers that violate this ban or commit sexual violence against sex workers, and against women in general, on Korean territory rarely receive any punishment. Military prostitution is treated as standard practice, something that is necessary to keep high morale and fighting spirit of young soldiers, following General Patton’s words: “if they don’t fuck, they don’t fight” (Roberts as cited in Moon, 2015). It’s clear that the U.S. military is responsible for the growth of military prostitution in South Korea. Still, the social inequalities and colonial legacy are also to blame, as it accepted the system in which the poor and weaker can be used to protect the higher class. The majority of female sex workers were from low-income families or developing countries; thus, Korean women from good families were protected. Without the tacit permission from the Korean government, military prostitution wouldn’t have a chance to have become as big as it was.

The American military culture is also highly patriarchal; sexism is visible in camptowns, and until now, despite all the regulations, little is done to cut the sexual abuse and unequal treatment of women. Women in camptowns were used by both the U.S. soldiers and the Korean government as they benefited from their work. Korean society may frown upon and exclude women that worked as sex workers. Still, it was collective tacit consent to sacrifice some of them in order to protect the majority. Sex workers in camptowns experienced discrimination based on their gender, class, and race. Korean society is patriarchal and ethnocentric, so not only female sex workers have been discriminated against but also their mixed-race children.

The acknowledged of the Korean government’s responsibility in the U.S. military prostitution by the Seoul High Court is a step forward. However, both the U.S. Army and the Korean government should actively enforce the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws. The soldiers who sexually abuse women should be punished, and the law should protect victims. It is also time for the Korean government to change the laws that criminalize the victims and start punishing the offenders. Moreover, the U.S. and its army must stop using political power disproportions to legitimate racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination.


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