While there has been light shed on the issue of comfort women used by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, not much has been discussed about the use of Vietnamese comfort women by South Korea.
During the Vietnam War (late 1960’s – early 1970’s) South Korea sent troops to Vietnam in an attempt to keep South Vietnam free from communism. It was reported later that many South Korean troops raped Vietnamese women and committed atrocities such as massacring farmers and aged people, and many others were forced into working as prostitutes for the South Korean soldiers. Many of these women would then later become pregnant and after these mixed Korean-Vietnamese children were born they were shunned by Vietnamese society and their soldier fathers returned to South Korea never to be seen or heard from again. The plight of these women was lost to history and not discussed until the late 1990’s when many of the victims began to speak out against the Vietnam and South Korean governments and demand recognition and compensation. To date the South Korean government has done little to acknowledge the issue but has continued to pursue further financial compensation from Japan for their own comfort women survivors and some say that their actions have become hypocritical and they are using the issue as their own political tool. In fact, South Korea orchestrated with Korean-American’s politically-driven campaign in the U.S. continent against Japan.
Acknowledgement and Compensation of Comfort Women
In 1973 Japanese author Kakou Senada published the first account of comfort women titled Military Comfort Women which detailed the Japanese army’s involvement in establishing comfort stations. The book was roundly criticized and attacked as being false, but it led to research into the issue. The Kono Statement of 1993, which was released by then Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Yohei Kono acknowledged the involvement of the military in the establishment of comfort stations and the coercion of the comfort women.
As a result, Japan set up the Asian Women’s Fund to compensate the victims of this practice partly funded by the Japanese government. Korea had also demanded compensation from the government and received $800 million in aid and loan packages over ten years. The South Korean government has been publicly supportive of the thousands of comfort women taken from their country and homes during the wars, even going after Japan for a second compensation. But history has shown that the Korean government was complicit in the use of comfort women.
Korea’s Use of Comfort Women
In large part due to testimony from survivors of the comfort station system, we now know that Korea established their own comfort women system during the Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean military set up two types of comfort stations—U.N. Comfort Stations for U.N. soldiers and Special Comfort Stations for Korean soldiers.
Many Korean women were forced to work in these comfort stations and many of those women were married and had children to support. Husbands were drafted into service and they had no other means to support their families. In many cases these comfort women were trucked to the front lines to service South Korean soldiers.
During the Vietnam War, South Korea sent troops to aid the anti-communist forces and while establishing their own comfort stations. Initially, South Korean soldiers raped many Vietnamese women then both the South Korean and Vietnamese military began to force Vietnamese women to work in comfort stations. In many cases children were produced as a result of the rapes and forced into sexual slavery as Vietnam comfort women.
These children are referred to as lai Daihan. The term is specific to children born of a South Korean father and a Vietnamese mother. It is unclear how many of these children were born, but estimates range in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately these children were ostracized by the Vietnamese and stigmatized because they were a product of rape and forced sexual encounters.
South Korea had set up a multi-operation comfort system for soldiers so they could use these women. The first was a “special comfort unit” named ‘T’uksu Wiandae’, and it operated from multiple stations. The second operations were mobile units for use in various locations. These mobile units visited the barracks of the soldiers. The third operation were prostitutes who worked in private brothels that were hired by the military. The women that were kidnapped and forced into this issue were from all over Asia.
The story of the Vietnam comfort women and their shunned children only came to light in the 1990s and 2000s as South Korea had increasing financial investments in Vietnam. But even though South Korea has demanded compensation from Japan—twice—for the Korean survivors of the comfort stations and has publicly supported these women, they have yet to acknowledge their own establishment of comfort stations, both in their own country during the Korean War and the use of them with Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War.
In addition to the establishment of comfort stations in Vietnam and the rampant rape of Vietnamese women, the South Korean military was also responsible for some other war crimes in the country. One particular incident involved the massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, at Phong Ni and Phong Nhat in 1968. Additionally, the Korean government publicly admonished the United States military for producing and then leaving behind many children during the Korean War, but they have continued to ignore the children produced through rape and sexual slavery of Vietnam comfort women.
But the Vietnamese are not unaware of the horrible treatment of these children. The term lai Daihan translates to Daihan, the Vietnamese word for Korea, and lai which implies contempt for that mixed blood. Nationalism and racism is common among the people of Southeast Asia and this has fueled the shunning of these children both by the Vietnamese and the Koreans.
The Legacy of The Vietnam Comfort Women and Their Children
While Korea continues to go after Japan and use the comfort women issue as a political tool they still ignore the victims of their own past crimes during conflicts within the region.
Former South Korean soldiers and civilian workers stationed in Vietnam during the war have continued to deny the existence of their children as has the government of South Korea. Some estimates put the number of Vietnamese comfort women at around 5,000 to 30,000 but no one knows an exact number. And they cannot be easily verified because of the secretive nature of the government.
The issue has largely remained a secret and information from the Vietnam War period has been hard to come by, though there is documentation that the Viet Cong did report to the Korean military on the huge numbers of rapes and kidnappings of Vietnamese comfort women by Korean troops during the war.
With more and more Korean survivors, among others, coming forward and giving testimony to what they suffered, the hope is that the truth about Vietnamese comfort women and their children will eventually come to light.
Kim Bok-dong, a Korean survivor of the Japanese comfort stations, along with the Korean Council for Military Sexual Slavery(Women Drafted) , who have helped protests every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, recently met with victims of sexual slavery and violence committed by South Korean soldiers in Vietnam. The council members want the issue of all comfort women brought to light, in addition to recognition by the governments who allowed and encouraged the practice.
In 2001 at a summit meeting with the Vietnamese government, Kim Dae-jung, then South Korean president, expressed regret for the abuses committed by South Korean soldiers against the Vietnamese during the war, but many say the statement didn’t go far enough. Kim Bok-dong said after the meeting with Vietnamese survivors, “The government should resolve the wrongdoing its countrymen committed. It cannot ignore these acts.”
But while statues have been erected to commemorate the lives and suffering of comfort women at the hands of the Japanese and protest have been held to pressure Japan to take official responsibility for their actions, the plight of comfort women used by South Korea, both during the Korean War and Vietnam War has largely gone ignored.
The United States government has gotten involved in pressuring Japan, as has the U.N. Human Rights Commission, but the former comfort women from the Korean and Vietnam wars are seeking Korea to also step up and take responsibility for their own actions, even as they call loudly for Japan to do the same.
Vietnamese Comfort Women and the U.S. Military
Prostitution was big business during the Vietnam War and many American servicemen took advantage of this service. Thousands of women worked out of camps and bars that sprung up around U.S. military bases. Many of these women got pregnant and the resulting children—some estimates put the number around 50,000—were shunned and ostracized, much like the children of mixed Korean and Vietnamese descent.
These children are called ‘bui doi‘ which translates to “dirt of life.” The women, too, were shunned and forced to live a life of poverty. Considering the history of comfort women used by both the Japanese and Korean military, and the coercion of many Korean women into forced prostitution, one wonders how many of these prostitutes were also coerced. It may not have been done by the Vietnamese government directly, but if prostitution is illegal in the country, then the government turned a blind eye. It is believed they may have even encouraged the practice to generate income.
Many of the thousands of women working as prostitutes during the Vietnam War were held against their will by pimps and lured with the promise of good-paying, respectable jobs so they could support their families in a country torn apart by war. They would never see most of the money, if any, paid to their pimps or the bar owners by the American soldiers. In some cases women were injected with silicone to make them more shapely so that the American soldiers would feel more “at home” with the Asian women.
While the U.S. military did not officially condone the practice of prostitution around military bases, they didn’t do anything to stop it, either. In many cases, soldiers on leave would go to surrounding countries where a similar set-up existed, such as in Thailand. Many of these hubs of prostitution were referred to as ‘rest & recreation’ sites. So even among the U.S. military, the practice was unofficially encouraged. If the men were kept happy, they followed orders and stayed in line.
And there were many instances of rape by soldiers during the war, among the other atrocities committed against the civilian population. It seems there has always been the misguided perception that allowing prostitution or establishing comfort stations would reduce rape, but that is a fallacy, as is the idea that the spread of sexually transmitted disease can somehow be controlled.
Governments also turn a blind eye and even encourage prostitution with the belief that it can elevate the socioeconomic status of the country. By permitting either system, governments allow the rape, abuse, and exploitation of women.
Unfortunately, many governments have drawn a line of distinction between the comfort women of World War II and the prostitutes in the wars that followed. They cite that fact that prostitutes were paid, so they couldn’t possibly have been forced. Whether forced through kidnapping, lured with the promise of a job, or coerced due to financial constraints, it is still exploitation of women.
What these governments refuse to acknowledge is that the women who worked as prostitutes were cheated out of any money and many were forced and held against their will.
While many have pressured the Japanese government to acknowledge and atone for their use of comfort women, many of these same governments should acknowledge their roles in the exploitation of these women. It’s time for Korea, Vietnam, and the United States to take responsibility for their actions and their encouragement of abuse.