Un/forgettable histories of US camptown prostitution in South Korea: Women’s experiences of sexual labor and government policies

The military camptown in South Korea is a legacy of colonialism and a symbol of national insecurity in Korean history. From September 1945, when US troops arrived on the Korean peninsula for a transfer of power from the Japanese colonial empire, until the present day, the presence of American soldiers and military bases has been a familiar feature of Korean society. The purpose of this article is to trace the history of the US military camptown in Korea, adding the intersection of hidden stories of women’s experiences. Based on an analysis of life stories of 14 former prostitutes and other primary and secondary sources, this article explores the ways in which the Korean government cooperated with US (military) interests in the systematic construction and maintenance of a system of camptown prostitution in the period from 1950 to 1980, with changes in policy from tacit permission to permissive promotion and then active support. During this process, women in camptowns experienced absurd, unjust and contradictory sociopolitical changes relating to international relations and national policies, as well as community attitudes toward and treatment of them in their vulnerable state. However, these women were neither absolute sexual objects nor helpless victims. Women in camptowns managed to carve out spaces for themselves and change their material conditions, cultural identities, and even their legal status, demonstrating their struggle for survival. In this way, women in camptowns represent a symbol of transgression against both androcentric Korean society and ethnocentric nationalism.

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