As we enter Asian American history month, we must look at the past, open our eyes, and acknowledge the hidden wrongs. During World War II, Japanese troops forced hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and other countries into brothels where they were sexually enslaved and repeatedly raped. Many women died or committed suicide due to brutal mistreatment and sustained physical and emotional distress. After the war, Japan’s acknowledgment of the comfort women’s plight was minimal, lacking a full apology and appropriate restitution, which damaged Japan’s reputation in Asia for decades.
While Japanese rule ended in 1945, the practice of comfort women did not. A recent New York Times article examines this painful history long endured in silence by the woman who lived it. The article gathered information using unsealed government documents, along with the interviews of six women who worked in camp towns located around American military bases.
The tragedy of what happened in South Korea has long been buried, but it is a story we must tell. One of complicity by those in power, specifically the South Korean and United States governments, turned a blind eye to these unsurmountable atrocities. In South Korea, in areas known as “special tourist zones for foreigners,” existed special comfort women units for South Korean, American, and UN troops. The practice of on-demand prostitution took place during the Korean War and beyond in what became known as camp towns, in which women from ages 16 and up were lured, kidnapped, and forced into sex labor for the benefit of the Korean government and the US military. At the height of these camp towns, the South Korean government garnered an annual revenue of over $165 million from business deals with the US, with a significant portion coming from the comfort women service. Furthermore, while very little of that money went to the government, it became a primary source of cash for towns starving for revenue.
In the early 1970s, US military and South Korean government officials met to discuss the issues occurring in camp towns. Rather than enforce what was already illegal, the authorities focused on devising a system to protect soldiers from contracting any transmitted disease. They did this by having comfort women packaged as commodities and educating military forces on the risk of venereal diseases. Women of the camp towns had to wear name tags and numbers to identify who they were and whether they had contracted a venereal disease, much like products with serial numbers on a shelf. In addition, the US military also conducted inspections of the camp town by keeping photo files of women at the health clinics who had contracted any venereal disease. Even with treatment, many women suffered or died because of penicillin shock.
When the US military faced the truth of forcefully using women for their bodies, they put a band-aid over an open wound. What is more heartbreaking about the story of the Camptown women is that to this day, South Korea has not yet come to terms with what took place, nor has the United States government. Furthermore, last year, the South Korean Supreme Court took responsibility for the atrocities that occurred, finding its government guilty; the over 100 women, in that case, were given a mere $3000 to $5000 for ongoing trauma.
Only when we raise our voices will we learn from that trauma and heal together.
Our government helped create a well-oiled system for women to be exploited and left behind with disease, death, and silence. Our government turned a blind eye to what it knew was wrong. It is for that reason that this month in which we celebrate the varying cultures that make up the Asian American Pacific Islander diaspora, we must raise our voices in solidarity with our South Korean brothers and sisters. We know that in doing so, we can begin the clarion call for change. Relieving the pain of the past first comes from knowing it. As with the massacre of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Ok, known as Black Wall Street, far too many did not know what happened. Only when we raise our voices will we learn from that trauma and heal together.
There will always be parts of our collective history that will be hard to get through. We cannot hide from the past just because it hurts. It is on all of us to continue to uncover what must be known to achieve a better future. We cannot fall silent. We must acknowledge every piece of the past and say to the women of the South Korean camp towns that they deserved so much more and that we will continue to fight alongside them to right the wrongs of the past and collectively build toward a bright and honorable future.