They’re called bar women, hostesses, or sex workers and “western princesses.” They come from poor families, struggling to earn a decent wage, only to be forced into the world’s oldest profession. They’re the women who work in the camptowns that surround U.S. military bases in South Korea. In 40 years, over a million women have worked in Korea’s military sex industry, but their existence has never been officially acknowledged by either government. In The Women Outside, a film by J.T. Orinne Takagi and Hye Jung Park, some of these women bravely speak out about their lives for the first time. The film raises provocative questions about military policy, economic survival, and the role of women in global geopolitics. Part of POV, broadcast television’s only continuing forum for independent non-fiction film, The Women Outside, a co-presentation of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), will air nationally Tuesday, July 16 at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).
The Korean War ended in 1953, but 37,000 American troops remain in South Korea to defend against possible invasion from the North in this, the most militarized region in the world. Around each of the 99 bases and installations are camptowns filled with bars, clubs, brothels — and over 27,000 women. Like migrant laborers, they work long hours for a meager base pay of only 200,000 won ($250 US) a month. The income barely covers food and rent; many become trapped in the camptowns as they struggle to pay off their ever-spiralling debts. Some dream of marrying U.S. military men and getting a fresh start in America. But even for those who find American G. I. husbands, resettling in the United States usually means confronting racism, anti-immigrant sentiments, a new way of life — and even ostracism from the Korean American community. The divorce rate for these Korean-American marriages is a staggering 80%.
It took Takagi and Park months to persuade current and former sex workers to speak out. “It was difficult getting them to talk, and extraordinary that we were allowed to film their faces,” says Park. The Women Outside focuses on several women, all of whom share a fierce determination to survive despite the discouraging odds. One of the film’s central characters is Yang Hyang Kim, who applied for a job in what she thought was a coffee house, only to be sold to a brothel outside Camp Stanley. She tells her wrenching story on camera with remarkable candor. After her first sexual experience in the brothel, “I felt like dirty woman,” she recalls, wincing at the memory. She tried to commit suicide, but another woman stopped her. “Physically I’m not a virgin,” she says softly. “But mentally I try to keep my pure heart.” When she finally escaped from the brothel, her family rejected her — shamed by her experience. Yang Hyang ended up returning to the camptowns.
The Women Outside also features interviews with representatives of South Korea’s women’s movement, Korean scholars, and U.S. Army personnel. The film charges that, working together, the Korean and American governments have allowed the camptown entertainment industry to flourish at the expense of countless Korean women. According to the film, priorities are heartbreakingly clear: all prostitutes are forcibly checked every two weeks for venereal disease, and regularly for H.I.V.; the soldiers are not. “If prostitutes and prostitution were really so natural, why does it require so many decisions by military commanders, why does it require so many negotiations?” asks Cynthia Enloe, professor of government at Clark University. Military prostitution, she maintains, “is not natural. It’s negotiated — it’s got as long a memo trail behind it as the fanciest weaponry.”
For some, the consequences are deadly. Yoon Kum-Yi, a sex worker, was brutally murdered in October, 1992 by Kenneth Markle, a U.S. serviceman stationed at Camp Casey. When Korean women’s groups organized massive protests, Markle became the first American soldier ever tried in Korean criminal courts. He was given a life sentence — though it was later reduced to 15 years.
Yang Hyang Kim is one of the lucky ones. The Women Outside follows her deepening relationship with Todd, a G.I., as they work to accomodate their cultural differences. Eventually, they marry, and Todd is transferred to Hawaii, where Kim, now pregnant, begins the difficult process of adapting to life in America. “My hope is to see my baby,” she says. “I want to take him to Burger King or McDonald’s and put a crown on his head…. I want to educate myself more. So I can become independent. So I can get a better job so I can afford my boy, my son. And raise him proudly.”
The Women Outside is a co-presentation of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), the leading provider and promoter of Asian American film and video for public television. Founded in 1980, NAATA funds, distributes and promotes works on the Asian American experience for public television.
The Women Outside is funded in part by the POV Minority Funding Partnership.