Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations
Six million American soldiers served in Korea between 1950 and 1971, and upward of one million South Korean women worked as “sex providers” for them in the “camptowns” that sprang up around U.S. bases, says Katharine H. S. Moon in Sex among Allies. The scope of these sexual contacts means that the image of each society held by the other is very much shaped by sexual conduct and relationships, she argues. But Moon demonstrates as well that conflict over prostitution played an especially pivotal role in U.S.-Korean relations in the early 1970s, when the authoritarian rulers of South Korea feared withdrawal of U.S. troops under the Nixon Doctrine. South Korean leaders, in rhetoric that eerily recalls the suffering of the “comfort women” who served the Japanese during World War II, sought to mobilize these prostitutes as “personal ambassadors” to Americans, seeking to instill in them the idea that they were performing patriotic acts in meeting the sexual needs of foreign soldiers and thus encouraging the U.S. army to stay in the country.
Moon, a political scientist, has written a model work of international [End Page 499] history. Her archival work draws from both U.S. and South Korean military sources, buttressed by interviews with middle-level military officials from both nations. Historians will be particularly interested in the nuggets Moon has unearthed in U.S. military reports as early as 1965, which pessimistically reviewed the prospects of reducing military prostitution because of its economic importance to South Korea and because many American officers believed that such “fraternization” made GIs more committed to fighting in Korea.
Perhaps most important, Moon has interviewed current and former prostitutes in Korea to ensure that “the voices of living Korean comfort women of the many U.S. camptowns . . . will be heard” (p. 16). Moon presents harrowing case studies of the economic and social conditions that led Korean women into military prostitution, their daily work lives, and the abuse they often suffered at the hands of pimps, customers, and government authorities. But she also shows the struggles, dreams, and, at times, political sophistication of these women.
Moon’s narrative thus combines high-level diplomatic history with social history “from the bottom up.” Her particular concern is to develop the connections between gender and foreign relations, a growing field pioneered by such scholars as Cynthia Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain. Moon’s contribution is to show the importance of a particular group of women as actual “players” in global politics, rather than to discuss, as many such studies do, simply the “gendered ideology” and the gendered consequences of international policy. Moon’s focus on interracial sexual relations rooted in military life and conducted between a dominant and a dependent society adds greatly to recent similar work by Gail Hershatter on China, Beth Bailey and David Farber on Hawaii, Ann Laura Stoler on colonial Asia, Luise White on colonial Africa, and Saundra Sturdevant and Brenda Stoltzfus on GIs in Asia.
Sex among Allies also stands out as international history not only in its attention to the nuances of relations between states, but also in its careful delineation of fault lines within each society. Thus, Moon shows that the plight of Korean prostitutes was not due only to Korean weakness with regard to the United States. Just as important were the ruthless exploitation by Korean club owners, the government’s use of prostitutes as a tool in negotiations with the United States, and Korean culture itself, which has long stigmatized those who had intimate relations with outsiders. Moreover, many Koreans have not been unhappy with the creation of a prostitute caste because it shields “normal” Korean women from U.S. soldiers.
At the same time, the joint U.S.-Korean campaign to “clean up” [End Page 500] the camptowns in the early 1970s had its origins in three sets of divisions among Americans. Military officials who sought to implement the official U.S. antiprostitution policy came into conflict with GIs and many officers who believed that sexual access to Korean women was their right. Tension between black and white GIs, on the rise on bases throughout the world in the late 1960s, erupted into open violence in Korea in 1971 due to allegations of discriminatory treatment by camptown clubs and prostitutes. Finally, career U.S. military officers in South Korea fought what they considered to be Nixon’s intent to pull out of Korea by demanding greater order and regulation in the camptowns, with the particular goal of reducing the staggeringly high venereal disease rate among GIs.
The pivotal events of the “clean-up campaign” demonstrate the complex outcomes of seemingly straightforward events, and at times the harmful effects on Korean women of well-intentioned motives. The withdrawal and redeployment within South Korea of some U.S. forces in 1971 led to greater rates of venereal disease and conflict between the U.S. military and prostitutes by upsetting established patterns of sexual relations. The efforts to reduce the GI venereal disease rate often led to increased victimization of prostitutes, due to a hopelessly flawed contact identification system and the unscrupulous operators of private Korean medical clinics.
Moon’s overall argument is compelling, but certain nuances may be questioned. Military prostitution was nothing short of “disgraceful work,” as one former prostitute put it, yet Moon at times comes close to celebrating the efforts of prostitutes to practice their trade free from control by U.S. military and Korean government officials. What appears to be an appeal to liberal rights and freedom for prostitutes is less than convincing in the face of the high rates of venereal disease that seem inevitably to accompany unregulated prostitution, although Moon demonstrates that neither the U.S. military nor the South Korean government acted with the health of the prostitutes as a central concern. Moreover, the collective actions by prostitutes in 1971 against a boycott of camptown clubs organized by black GIs and against the placing of certain clubs as off-limits to GIs did not strike this reader as a blow to “U.S. hegemony” over the camptowns or as a rejection of the treatment of Korean women’s bodies as commodities, as Moon asserts.
Sex among Allies would be an important addition to classes in global women’s or gender history, war and society, and U.S.-Asian relations, although the excessive use of awkward acronyms may slow down some students. With Moon’s exposition of the work of Korean [End Page 501] prostitutes as the “glue” that has for decades linked Americans and Koreans, no lecture or class discussion on the Korean War, on the Nixon Doctrine, or on the world role of the U.S. military should henceforth ignore the central roles of gender and sexuality.