[Interview] Fighting for reparations for Korea’s camptown women before it’s too late

Posted on : 2022-06-26 10:44 KST Modified on : 2022-06-26 10:44 KST
Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae has spent more than a decade working to hold the Korean government – and that of the US – accountable for human rights abuses suffered by women in and around US military bases
Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae, the joint representative of the Camptown Women’s Human Rights Alliance, speaks to the Hankyoreh on June 14, 2022. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)
Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae, the joint representative of the Camptown Women’s Human Rights Alliance, speaks to the Hankyoreh on June 14, 2022. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)

Aug. 31 marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Camptown Women’s Human Rights Coalition, an organization headed by Woo Soon-deok as standing representative and co-representatives Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae and Kim Eun-jin.

The group’s emergence came after a four-year preparation process launched in 2008 by groups such as Durebang and Sunlit Sisters’ Center that have been campaigning for upwards of three decades for the rights of women in the communities surrounding US military bases in Korea.

When it was first established in 2012, the coalition set two goals: filing suit against the governments of South Korea and the US, and enacting a special law to investigate prostitution in camptowns and support victims.

Over the past 10 years, it has made steady progress toward its aims, achieving some meaningful results along the way. A 2014 suit filed by 122 camptown women against the state to demand compensation resulted in a second trial decision four years later awarding damages to all of the plaintiffs.

The court in that case found the state to have been responsible for violating the plaintiffs’ human dignity through its active and aggressive operation of camptowns — known as “gijichon” in Korean — with sex workers catering to US troops.

Four years have passed since then without a judgment by the Supreme Court. This is why the plaintiffs — most of them in their 70s and 80s today — staged a press conference in front of the National Assembly at 11 am on Thursday. This was their second press conference to call for a Supreme Court ruling, after a previous one last year.

I sat down with Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae, co-director of the coalition, at the Hankyoreh’s office in the Gongdeok neighborhood of Seoul on June 14. Ahn-Kim, aged 63, has been leading the coalition since its establishment.

The daughter of a wounded veteran who crossed the border into South Korea during the Korean War, Ahn-Kim completed her doctoral dissertation at Inha University on the US’ Korean Military Advisory Group. In her career, she has been a lecturer at the Korea Military Academy, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, second research director for the Ministry of National Defense’s fact-finding committee for past incidents, and head of research for Korea’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During her tenure as head of Women Making Peace, she helped organize the Women’s Peace Walk along with women peace activists around the world and led the group during those walks.

“In this press conference, we intend to call for a swift decision at the Supreme Court and for the passage of the special act. The bill for the Act to Investigate the Issue of US Military Comfort Women and to Support Victims was submitted to this session of the National Assembly, as well as the previous two sessions, by Jung Choun-sook [assemblywoman for the Democratic Party], but debate on the bill hasn’t even begun yet,” Ahn-Kim said.

“Eleven of the plaintiffs have already passed away,” she added, lamenting the delay in the Supreme Court’s decision and the passage of the special act, as well as the delay in Gyeonggi Province providing livelihood assistance to the camptown women.

“Thanks to the efforts of the camptown advocates, a provision for supporting the camptown women passed the Gyeonggido [Gyeonggi Province] Assembly, but it still hasn’t been implemented. Provincial officials make the excuse that there isn’t a superior law or Supreme Court ruling, even though the province has every right to act on its own.”

According to Ahn-Kim, the women in question are in urgent need of help for livelihood and medical care. “The camptown women face financial difficulties, with three quarters enrolled in the government’s basic livelihood security program. In addition to that, they suffer from various diseases because of frequent abortions and excessive application of penicillin to prevent STDs in the camptowns.”

The Seoul High Court’s ruling in 2018 was significant, being the first time the Korean judiciary had acknowledged the state’s responsibility for prostitution at US military camptowns.

In its ruling, the high court said, “The state encouraged and justified prostitution inside the camptowns by providing ‘patriotic education’ that praised US military comfort women as being ‘patriots who earned foreign currency.’ The state directly infringed basic rights, including bodily freedom, by forcibly quarantining women who tested positive for STDs in what was called the ‘Monkey House’ and by indiscriminately administering large amounts of penicillin despite numerous physical side effects. Damages of 7 million won a person shall be given to 74 of the plaintiffs and 3 million won to 43 of the plaintiffs, along with interest.”

Ahn-Kim had taken part in the discussion about launching the coalition since 2010, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its activities. As soon as the coalition was in operation, she began soliciting testimony from people in the camptowns alongside attorneys such as Ha Ju-hui, who currently serves as secretary-general of MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, as they prepared for the lawsuit.

“Not even 1% of the camptown women are taking part in the lawsuit. It’s not easy for those women to reveal their past both because their family members might find it shameful and because of the perception among some Koreans that the women in camptowns voluntarily [sold sex] to earn money,” Ahn-Kim said.

“If the high court’s ruling that acknowledges the responsibility of the state is upheld by the Supreme Court, our legal team will also look into filing a lawsuit against the American government. A lot of former US military comfort women who have moved to the US could be plaintiffs along with the victims in Korea.”

Litigation against the US government is also under consideration

When I asked why the government should pay damages to the camptown women, Ahn-Kim brought up the Nixon Doctrine from 1969.

“Given the growing likelihood that the US would pull troops out of Korea following the declaration of the Nixon Doctrine, the South Korean government launched the ‘camptown cleanup’ campaign, which sought to renovate camptown buildings and instructed camptown women to maintain good hygiene. The point was to keep them from spreading STDs to American soldiers,” Ahn-Kim said.

“President Park Chung-hee justified and encouraged prostitution, which was prohibited by law, and instructing women to break the law. Just like the title of the book by Katharine Moon, this was ‘sex among allies,’ based on women’s bodies.

“When Park visited a road construction site in front of a US military base in Songtan, Gyeonggi Province, in the early 1970s, he delivered an address to camptown women who had been mobilized by what amounted to force. He said the Korean economy was running thanks to them and promised the government would help them later on if they were on hard times or tired out.”

Ahn-Kim also noted disappointment that the high court’s ruling had omitted mention of US’ responsibility.

“We even have testimony of Korean doctors and white people wearing white gowns — presumably, US army medics — giving shots of penicillin to camptown women at the ‘Monkey House,’ to which women were often taken by force. [The Americans] were presumably there to keep an eye on the Korean medical staff and make sure they administered the penicillin flown in from the US without pilfering any of it.

“When a US military comfort woman was accused of spreading STDs by an American soldier, she would be dragged off to the Monkey House to get a penicillin shot — which can cause fatal shock — even if she didn’t have any STDs.”

Once again, Ahn-Kim stressed the need to pass the special act.

“The government doesn’t even have any statistics about the US military comfort women. We only have a vague estimate of 200,000-300,000 women, based on the numbers of [Korean] women who went to the US through Gimpo Airport in the 1960s and 1970s, when it wasn’t easy [for ordinary Koreans] to leave the country.

“The National Archives responded to a recent query by saying it couldn’t find any records of US military comfort women being treated at public health centers around the country. The bill needs to be enacted right away so that the government can determine the scale of the US military comfort women system and learn the truth about the human rights violations.”

Ahn-Kim, who also led the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea for five years, beginning in 2013, said that war is a “travesty of collective violence carried out by sociopathic lunatics who view ordinary people as pawns on a chessboard.”

“Just look at Hitler, Stalin, Kim Il-sung, Putin, and Bush. They’re all the same. Even Syngman Rhee couldn’t stop talking about unifying Korea by invading the north. When war breaks out, the biggest victims are women.”

That’s also why Ahn-Kim says that women should play a leading role in the issues of peace and national security.

In 2015, when Ahn-Kim began her tenure as head of Women Making Peace, that conviction inspired her to organize the Women’s Peace Walk across the DMZ, from north to south, in partnership with Women Cross DMZ, a global organization of women advocating peace, despite criticism from some corners of the progressive women’s movement. The Women’s Peace Walk continued through 2018.

“I think we’ll find the answer to issues of peace and national security if women are given the authority to make policy. That’s because women try to resolve conflict not through war, but through dialogue and diplomacy.

“Just as Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich wrote in her book ‘The Unwomanly Face of War,’ women can’t imagine killing people, because they’re the ones who give birth and raise children. Women never go to war.”

Ahn-Kim explains that her family background was behind her doctoral research on the military and her work for achieving peace and overcoming the division of the Korean Peninsula.

“My father was a marine who took part in the amphibious landing at Incheon and was injured in the war. When I was a kid, he would always talk about the war at the dinner table. I was terrified by the horrible stories he told about close combat with North Korean soldiers.

“One of my uncles was another injured veteran. He had been wounded in his arm and had to wear a prosthesis. Whenever I went to the market in Seoul’s Geumho neighborhood in my childhood, I saw a lot of people like that, people who’d been wounded in the war.”

In her second year of middle school, Ahn-Kim’s social studies teacher helped her understand her growing suspicions about and dislike for the military culture she found herself in.

“This was the early 1970s. My teacher had an extremely sharp, critical mind. They told us not to grovel before any authority and emphasized the importance of the constitution and the issue of collaborators during the Japanese colonial period.”

“Listening to my teacher, I got to thinking that maybe my father was always talking about the war because he’d come south when the peninsula was divided. In college, I started studying the issues of the military and the division of Korea because I thought that resolving that was the most important thing for Korean society.”

Ahn-Kim received an undergraduate degree in English literature and a master’s in political science and international relations, both from Ewha Womans University, later completing her doctoral studies at Inha University.

By Kang Sung-man, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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