SINCE SEPTEMBER 1945 when the 24th Army Corps, consisting of some 70,000 soldiers and led by General John R. Hodge, arrived to accept the transfer of power over Korea from the Japanese empire, U.S. soldiers stationed on military bases have had a significant presence in Korean society. With the formal independence of South Korea, the number of U.S. personnel was reduced to 22,823 in 1948, and the withdrawal of occupation forces began on June 30, 1949. (1) Soon, however, the Korean War turned the peninsula back into a zone of protracted military confrontation. According to a Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO), 101 military facilities, including fifty camps, entangle the Korean territory in a complex web. (2) Despite the decline in the number of bases as the political atmosphere has changed over time, the United States had at least 35,000 troops in South Korea in the early 2000s.
Small villages that depend entirely on the U.S. military economy have developed around the main U.S. bases. These "camptowns" (in Korean, gijichon (3)), with their commercial districts filled with clubs, bars, brothels, convenience stores, pawnshops, barbershops, tailor shops, photo and portrait shops, and drug stores, center on selling sex to soldiers. Gijichon prostitution is a large-scale activity; for example, in Gyeonggi Province prostitution is concentrated in four large camptowns: Dongducheon, Pyeongtaek, Paju, and Uijeongbu. More than one-tenth (11 percent) of the total population of the province is engaged in military prostitution. The number of so-called entertainment workers with health certificates, required to enter and work in the camptowns, reached around 30,000 in the 1960s and remained around 20,000 in the 1970s and 1980s, amounting to approximately one sex worker for every two to three soldiers at that time. (4)
Despite the official illegality of domestic prostitution, the Korean government tacitly condones and actively regulates prostitution around U.S. military bases. As Katharine Moon has shown, camptown prostitution has actually served the economic development of Korea, as well as its national security. The presence of U.S. troops contributed 25 percent of South Korea's GNP, playing an especially important role during the 1960s, and prostitution and related business supported over half of the U.S. camptowns' economy. (5) The Korean government has demarcated these spaces as open only to U.S. military personnel and foreign tourists; the two largest gijichon, Dongducheon and Pyeongtaek, were designated as Special Tourism Districts in 1997. (6) Women working in the entertainment industry of these areas must be registered and are subject to regular examinations for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Other Koreans commonly call these sex workers derogatory names, such as yanggalbo (Western whore) and yanggongju (Western princess). The demeaning treatment of these women as pariahs, dirty trash, and immoral or "fallen" blames them personally for their situation, differentiates them from women identified as chaste daughters and faithful wives, and ultimately helps to maintain Korean national pride. The Korean government has successfully ghettoized the gijichon as buffer zones that prevent U.S. soldiers from entering Korean society and prohibit ordinary Koreans, especially "respectable" Korean women,...
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