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Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 170-177

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Women's Sexual Labor and State in Korean History

Chunghee Sarah Soh

Having studied the "comfort women" issue over the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that the enduring historical patterns of asymmetrical relations between Korean women's sexual labor and its appropriation by state institutions constitute a major underlying, social psychological factor that contributed to overall societal indifference to the horrific ordeals former comfort women suffered for nearly half a century before the transnational social movement for redress began in the early 1990s. 1 Countless young girls and women in colonized Korea (1910-1945) and elsewhere in East Asia and the Pacific islands, whose estimated numbers are up to 200,000, were forced to engage in sexual servitiude by the imperial Japanese military during the Asia Pacific War (1931-1945). 2 The majority of the young females recruited as comfort women came from lower classes. Many were deceived by "human traders" who lured them with promises of well-paying jobs only to deliver them to brothels and military comfort stations. Some, however, chose to leave home, not out of economic necessity but in search of independence and freedom from domestic violence against and gendered mistreatment of daughters. 3 In addition, we should note here that one of the strategic reasons why imperial Japan targeted Korean unmarried women in their recruitment of military comfort women was the fact that they were sexually inexperienced, due to the cultural emphasis on and strict social enforcement of the cult of female virginity in Korean sexual mores.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that in the Korean history of women's enforced sexual labor, imperial Japan was not the first foreign nation to take advantage of its superior political power position in the exploitation of Korean women's sexual labor. More than 700 years ago, when the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) on the Korean peninsula came under the Mongols' domination at the end of a thirty-year warfare (during which about half of a million women and children were taken by the Mongolian army), the Korean state was forced to round up young females and send them as kongnyo (literally, "tribute women") to the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) for over eighty years. 4 The tribute women were the Mongol's version of the comfort women. The Chinese demand for Korean kongnyo did not stop with the demise of both Koryo and Yuan dynasties. The state of Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) continued to recruit and offer kongnyo to China's Ming dynasty (1368-1662) until around 1521. 5 [End Page 170]

In the seventeenth century, when the Manchus vanquished Ming and came to power, the Korean nation suffered two Manchu invasions in 1627 and 1636, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forcibly taken to China. When some of the captured women returned home, they were regarded as defiled women and rejected even by their families. 6 Many of the returnee women hanged themselves, and it is said that their corpses littered the streets. The term hwanhyangnyo (literally, a home-coming woman, referring to the returnee women from China) degenerated into hwanyangnyon (a promiscuous woman, or a slut), to be despised and ill-treated. 7

The painful prejudice and ostracization that Korean returnee women suffered more than three centuries ago still resonate deeply in the psychological fear of social stigmatization that comfort women survivors have experienced in their postwar lives in contemporary Korean society. To understand the centuries-old pattern of societal rejection of survivors of forced sexual labor, we need to consider the systemic binary division of women according to normative functions of their sexuality in the history of Korean patriarchy. The majority of women, who were socialized to be obedient wives and selflessly devoted mothers, was taught to regard virginity to be more precious than life itself, while a small number of women was trained to entertain men professionally, offering bodily services for sexual recreation.

From the social structural perspective of Korean history, state...


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