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Dozens of former prostitutes brought a lawsuit to press the government to admit that it had played a hand in creating and managing a vast network of prostitution in camp towns , called gijichon, where poor Korean women worked in bars and brothels frequented by American troops. In the ruling by a three-judge panel of the Central District Court in Seoul, the women did not win that admission or the apology they sought. The plaintiffs had encouraged that comparison, arguing that it was hypocritical for South Korea to condemn Japan for its historical wrongdoings while not acknowledging its own role in ensuring that foreign soldiers had access to Korean prostitutes.
When I ran away, they caught and beat me, raising my debt. The Justice Ministry, which represented the government in the lawsuit, did not immediately react to the ruling on Friday. In the destitute years after the Korean War of , the dollars that prostitutes in the camp towns earned were a valued source of hard currency in South Korea. At the same time, the women said, the health authorities cracked down on prostitutes who tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, less out of concern for the women than to protect American soldiers.
Scholars who have studied the issue have said that the South Korean government was motivated in part by fear that the American military, stationed in the country to provide a defense against North Korea, would leave. The American military became involved in attempts to regulate the sex trade to minimize the spread of disease among soldiers, those scholars said. The United States military command in Seoul has said that it did not condone or support prostitution or human trafficking. The South Korean government has never formally acknowledged involvement in the camp towns or taken responsibility for abuses there.
The women kept quiet for decades, partly because the military governments that ruled South Korea until the late s enforced silence about issues that could be seen as detrimental to the alliance with the United States. In addition, South Korean society has an extremely negative view of prostitutes, especially ones who had been paid by foreign soldiers. Prostitution is and has always been illegal in South Korea. In , however, more than former prostitutes filed a lawsuit demanding compensation and a government apology for their detention and forced treatment.
Only 57 of the plaintiffs were awarded compensation on Friday, because the court said there was not enough evidence that the others had been detained illegally. Kim Jin, a lawyer for the women, said the verdict on Friday was significant because it was the first official acknowledgment that women in the camp towns had been subjected to illegal treatment. But Ms. Kim said the women would appeal the ruling, seeking an official apology, greater compensation and a finding that the government was responsible for creating and running the camp towns.