A Place for the Forgotten

The Sunlit Sisters Center in South Korea provides 
a safe place for aging sex workers of the Korean War.

A Place for the Forgotten
Soon-Duk Woo (center) greets women arriving at the Sunlit Sisters Center in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. She is the director of the center.

Young-mi Jang is 70. She and many other elderly women in the neighborhood came to Anjeong-ri when they were young in order to work in the bars and clubs where they sold their bodies to soldiers. As they have aged, their bodies are no longer valuable in the marketplace, yet the stigma of having been a prostitute, especially one who serviced Westerners, clings to them forever, restricting their ability to relocate elsewhere in South Korea. So they remain in the same “camptown” where they once exercised their profession, now scorned and alone.

In the middle of their neighborhood, however, a unique ministry supported by United Methodist Women has offered them a space where they can be themselves, laughing and crying together with other women whose personal stories are much like their own.

“Patriotic prostitutes”

Jang was only 2 when North Korean soldiers came to her house in a wealthy section of Seoul and killed her parents and brother. She had accompanied the family’s nanny to the market, so was spared. She went to live with the nanny’s family, but when the woman died four years later from cancer, Jang was passed at age 6 to a family that treated her as a servant. Life was hard, she received very little food, didn’t go to school and was teased a lot by a girl in the family who was the same age. When Jang was 17, that girl pushed her during a disagreement, injuring Jang’s back. She had no money to pay for treatment and has walked with a limp ever since.

When she heard from a friend that if she went to the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, there was a house where she could eat and sleep for free, Jang jumped at the opportunity. She started working in the Lucky Club, a bar for U.S. soldiers on Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill. “It was like heaven” after the years of domestic terror, Jang said. “There was no pain, no hard work, no one to bully me.”

There was drinking with soldiers and getting paid to have sex with them. She managed to save money, and after three years gave her entire savings to a U.S. soldier and his Korean girlfriend, who promised to start a business with her. They disappeared with the money.

Jang then moved to Songtan, where for several years she worked in the “camptown” adjacent to a U.S. military base. Again she slowly saved her money working in clubs, eventually moving into a small shack paid for by a soldier who kept her for his exclusive use. She fell in love with the man, and eventually loaned him $10,000 she had saved over the years. Then she discovered he had used most of the money to buy an engagement ring for another woman. Jang kicked him out and went back to the clubs.

The Korean government encouraged the women engaged in sex work, with some officials even praising them as “patriotic prostitutes” who played a critical national security role, boosting morale among foreign troops and ensuring the acquisition of hard currency. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the South Korean government openly provided prostitutes in military camps. After the war, although prostitution was illegal, the camptowns beside U.S. bases were exempted as “special tourist zones.”

In a landmark decision this February, a court in Seoul ruled that the government “operated and managed” the military camptowns where, according to one estimate, some 46,000 Korean workers earned $70 million in 1969 alone. Some estimates place the number of Korean women who worked in the camptowns between 1950 and 2007 at more than 1 million. Not surprisingly, during the heyday of the military government in the 1960s, camptown prostitution and related businesses generated as much as 25 percent of the country’s gross national product.

The government also provided twice-weekly checkups for sexually transmitted infections. When women tested positive for STIs, or even when they were accused of being infected, they were often locked in prison-like buildings and injected with antibiotics whether they agreed or not. They weren’t released from confinement until they were deemed cured. U.S. Military Police cooperated in detaining women whom soldiers identified, rightly or wrongly, as having given them an infection. Sex workers were often allowed access to clubs located inside the U.S. bases when they presented their health-check cards as identification. Well into the 1960s, African-American soldiers were relegated to separate clubs from white soldiers, with a distinct class of women designated to provide their services.

Pets “don’t betray me”

Jang eventually moved to Anjeong-ri, where because of her age she worked as a server in a club for a few years, but when it became too difficult to work, she stayed home in her small room, adopting two abandoned dogs and several cats. “I like them because they don’t betray me,” she said.

One dog she named Poptori, Korean for Lucky, because she found it eating trash on the street. “I gave him that name because he was lucky I found him,” she said.

The gritty neighborhood where Jang lives with her pets is under pressure because of the expansion of Camp Humphreys. Rents have gone up as landlords seek to tear down old buildings and replace them with new, more profitable structures. Finding somewhere else to live is difficult, particularly for the former sex workers. They can’t afford higher rents, and even if they could, the stigma about sex workers remains strong in Korea, frightening prospective landlords.

There are still clubs around the bases, despite recent efforts by the U.S. military to crack down on prostitution and trafficking. Most of the sex workers today are from the Philippines, which has reliably provided women for prostitution abroad ever since U.S. military bases in the Philippines were shuttered in 1992.

Although they were proclaimed as national heroes in the 1960s, today South Korea has largely forgotten about the old women. Even the children of U.S. soldiers that many of them birthed have left, taking advantage of special U.S. immigration waivers that allowed them to emigrate from a land that treated them with contempt. Their mothers, shamed by all, remain behind, most of them alone.

About the only place they find acceptance and affirmation these days is a two-room, church-sponsored center tucked away in an Anjeong-ri back 

The Sunlit Sisters Center was launched in 2002 by Soon-duk Woo, a women’s leader in the Korean Methodist Church. Woo, a seminary graduate who chose not to be ordained because she wanted to focus on women’s issues, had previously headed the denomination’s women’s association but got in a fight with a bishop over the association’s property. To help her get a new start, United Methodist Women gave Woo a full scholarship to study social work at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul. When she came to the United States for a United Methodist Women-sponsored conference in Wisconsin, she heard about church ministries with sex workers in other countries. “I hadn’t heard of any such work in my country, so when I went home I decided to find out what I could do,” she said.

Woo started visiting Anjeong-ri in 2001, yet gaining the elderly women’s trust wasn’t easy. She knocked on doors that weren’t answered, phoned women who hung up on her. She persisted, patiently gaining trust, asking at first just to listen to women’s stories. Over several months she found a handful of women willing to work with her, and in 2002 she launched the Sunlit Sisters Center as a safe place where the women could come together. To pay the rent and fund a small program, she printed a one-page information sheet with information about the center and a bank account number. When she passed it out at the denomination’s annual conference, churches and individuals started pledging support.

In the years since, the center has slowly expanded its work. Besides a Tuesday gathering where the women share, worship and eat together, the center sponsors picnics and cultural outings. It provides regular medical and dental services as well as visits from a hair stylist.

When one of the women gets sick and goes to the hospital, the other women collect money for her. “If they go elsewhere in South Korea, they are seen as sex workers first. Here they are friends, equals, women with the same experiences. So they connect easily and support one another. Here they feel like they’re truly at home,” Woo said.

Woo’s days are filled with the details of helping the dozens of women who participate in the center. “The women here are strong, and I’ve learned a lot from them about strength, but they have many problems. That’s why I’m always thinking of how to help them. It allows me to forget about my own concerns. In many ways they have saved me,” she said.

Several times a year the women gather to fold a newsletter and annual report that are distributed to supporters. Woo says the center is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. “At the end of the year there are always some churches that have decided to stop their funding of the center in order to focus on something else, so in December and January I am always tense,” she said. “But we have survived this for 16 years. God gave us this mission, so I tell myself that ultimately it depends on God, not on me.”

The center has also received support from United Methodist Women, including a recent A Call to Prayer and Self-Denial grant to upgrade computer equipment and train some of the women and volunteers in computer use.

Legal victory

The support offered by Woo has helped the women shake off the decades of shame. “In the old days, they called us ‘Yankee princesses’ and even worse names, like ‘Western whores.’ Everyone looked down on us. We were ashamed to speak up. But today we have found our voice and can speak up about the wrongs we experienced,” said Sukja Kim, a participant in the Sunlit Sisters Center.

To help the old women tell their stories to a wider audience, the center published a book, Dark Roots of Lotus, with the biographies of seven women. It has turned individual women’s stories into plays performed before audiences in Seoul. And Woo and the center have enthusiastically supported an effort by more than 100 of the women to demand compensation from the national government.

Filed in 2014, their lawsuit won a partial victory in 2017 when a judge in Seoul awarded damages to 57 plaintiffs who the court ruled had been forcibly detained against their will because they were suspected of suffering from STIs.

Then in February of this year, a three-judge panel broadened the ruling, awarding between 3 million and 7 million won ($2,800 to $6,500) to each of 117 women. The court declared that the state had actively “operated and managed” prostitution centers in order to “boost morale among foreign troops” and keep “an essential military alliance for national security” in place, “while mobilizing prostitutes” to earn hard currency for the country. The court also declared that the promotion of prostitution and related violations of human rights were “not solely the responsibility of the South Korean government but the responsibility of the U.S. government as well.”

The landmark decision didn’t gain much attention in South Korea because it came on the heels of a decision by President Jae-in Moon not to renegotiate a 2015 agreement with Japan about the treatment of Korean women who were forced to serve as “comfort women” to Japanese troops during World War II. More than 100,000 Korean girls, most between 14 and 18 years old, were abducted by the Japanese and forced to work in so-called comfort stations throughout areas occupied by Japan. In South Korea, only about 40 of the women are still alive, their average age about 90.

Under the bilateral 2015 agreement, Japan agreed to pay more than $8 million in reparations, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “expressed anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

Because it transpired longer ago, the trafficking of women by the Japanese is a safer motivation for outrage in South Korea today. A statue of a young girl sits across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, a symbol of all the comfort women, and every week demonstrators gather around her to demand a greater response from Japan’s government. The issue has spread around the globe, with cities from Atlanta to Manila erecting similar statues in honor of the comfort women. Yet even that hasn’t been without controversy. When San Francisco erected its own unique statue last year—featuring young girls from Korea, China and the Philippines—Japanese authorities denounced it and urged Japanese tourists to boycott the city.

Yet the statues went up, honoring those comfort women who have had the courage to identify themselves and tell their stories. For many activists against the abuse and trafficking of women around the world, the elderly comfort women in Asia are the grandmothers of the #MeToo movement.

Yet for Young-mi Jang and the others of her generation of women who serviced U.S. soldiers in Korea, there are no statues. The February court ruling produced headlines for a day, but the attention is fleeting. The military culture that sees trafficked women as a cost of maintaining morale remains largely unchallenged. What remains are the old women, alone in their little rooms with a lifetime of painful memories. And there’s Soon-duk Woo, knocking on their doors, calling them into a community where they will know love and grace.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Posted or updated: 10/8/2018 12:00:00 AM