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Lankov, Andrei "Ladies of the 1950's Nights" 2 Feb 2006

In 1947 the U.S. military government in Korea made prostitution illegal, and in 1948 the parliament of the newly established Republic of Korea upheld the ban. However, there was a major problem with the law: nobody took it seriously. Perhaps, from the very beginning, it was not meant to be taken seriously. Prostitution continued, and in the 1950s reached levels undreamt of in colonial times.

An estimated 50-100,000 women made their living by selling sexual services, and there were a number of part-timers as well. In Korea of the 1960s and 1970s there were at least four distinct type of the prostitution. First, there was cheap sex to the lusty male masses. Second, there was the prostitution, which served the U.S. forces.

Another group of prostitutes catered to foreign sex-tourists (largely Japanese), and yet another included high-level call girls who provided sexual pleasures for the top crust. Remarkably, in the 1970s there was not much soul-searching about prostitution _ at least, outside the church groups.

The prostitution for foreigners did occasionally lead to some problems, but these were stimulated, first and foremost, by nationalism. In general, the pragmatic and somewhat cynical attitude to sex, so common in East Asia, prevailed: pre-marital and extra-marital sex was permissible and even laudable for males, although definitely a taboo for ``decent’’ women. The cheap mass-oriented prostitution continued largely in the same areas which had housed brothels and hookers’ room in the 1930s. The small aquarium-like shops where the working girls sat under the seductive red light, visible to passersby, could be found near all major railway stations and bus terminals.

In the Seoul of the 1960s, there were two major areas of mass prostitution. One was conveniently located in the very heart of the city, in the Chongno 3-ga area. Nowadays, this somewhat up-market area houses a number of movie theaters (but also an impressive array of ``love hotels’’ which, however, cater to lovers, not johns). The location was important, since a tired and lusty salaried man or a small vendor could easily get there by tram -cars were a rare luxury in the 1960s, and those who could afford a car, would purchase sexual services from a different type of establishment.

The second largest area was around the Chongnyangni railway station. Professor Son Chong-mok, a brilliant historian of Seoul, once wrote that the growth of the sex industry in that area began in the final years of the Korean War, when the station became the terminal for all trains which went east, to the frontline. Most of the trains carried soldiers to their posts.

Soldiers were eager to buy sex before a sting in the trenches under the Reds’ fire, and girls from starving villages came to the area to earn some money to survive. Thus, the Chongnyangni area, also known as ``588’’ (I have no idea why), came into existence. Prostitution in Chongno 3-ga area was wiped out by a striking operation of the city police in 1968, but ``588’’ and a younger area of Miari have continued to function down to the present day. Perhaps, the recent crackdowns on prostitution will drive them out of existence, even though I believe that changes in the sexual norms are more important than all the police raids put together.

Another type of prostitution was associated with the U.S. forces, more precisely with the sleazy ``camp towns’’ which developed around major US bases in the country. In Seoul, this type of prostitution flourished in the Itaewon area, near the main US base in the city. Some authorities stated that in the 1960s there were up to 20,000 prostitutes for foreigners, with the girls known as ``foreign princesses.’’ Frankly, I think that this figure is somewhat exaggerated: 20,000 for 60,000 soldiers is a bit too much, so it must have included some part-timers. At any rate, this was a large industry. In the 1960s, the existence of the camptowns was recognized officially _ pretty much in open contradiction to the supposed ban on commercial sex. Prostitution remained technically illegal, of course, but the Ministries of Justice, and Interior and Social Welfare jointly designated a number of special areas where the ``U.N. girls’’ could safely ply their trade.

It seems that the ``domestic’’ sex services largely remained separate from those that catered to the foreigners. In Korea of the 1970s there were only two major groups of foreigners who were ready to pursue sex for money. One was the U.S. soldiers and the other were Japanese tourists. Until the early 1970s the major focus of Japanese sex tourism was Taiwan, but complicated changes in international politics, combined with the normalization of the diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan led to a switch of Japanese tourism to Korea. To a large extent, this ``tourism’’ was sex-driven: the Japanese ``salaried men’’ flew to Korea to buy sex at a fraction of the cost they would have to pay in their home country. Finally, there were services for the rich and mighty: powerful males in East Asia were not supposed to be loyal husbands - rather, womanizing was expected and even encouraged among them.

They frequented a type of elite establishment that combined the function of an elite brothel with that of a restaurant and a club. The very top could enjoy the companionship of singers and stewardesses (a rare and very glamorous profession in those times). Even President Pak was a known admirer of this type of relaxation - the fact of which his detractors keep reminding us (as if the opposition leaders behaved any differently). Curiously, a look at the sexual mores of the North Korean elite - to the extent these mores are known - reveal a very similar picture. But that is another story … 02-02-2006 21:16 The Dawn of Modern Korea -354- Ladies of the 1950s Nights

The Korea Times