Soon Duk Woo took trains all around South Korea, exploring city after city, searching for a place to build a center for exploited and abandoned women. She had received a scholarship to Ewha University from United Methodist Women with an essay describing the women’s center she dreamed of opening, and now that she was armed with her graduate degree in sociology, she needed the perfect location for the center.
Ms. Woo found it in the red light district near the train station in the southern town of Anjung-Ri. Located in the larger prefecture of Pyeongtaek, Anjung-Ri is often called a “camptown,” a city that is home to a U.S. Army base and a magnet for all types of businesses. Populated by people with a steady income, military bases routinely attract barbershops, clothing stores, electronics and camera stores, restaurants, bars — and the sex trade.
In 1945, when Korea gained its independence from Japan, the country opened up to U.S. Army bases. Even more U.S. troops came with the onset of the Korean War, which divided the country and capitulated South Korea into many years of suffering and extreme poverty. Korea’s war casualties were enormous with approximately 300,000 killed and 700,000 wounded. Thousands of families lost their means of support, and many households were no longer able to obtain enough food. The landscape was covered with rubble and the infrastructure was destroyed. Thousands of people wandered about, unemployed. These harrowing conditions led young women to the camptowns, where at least they had a chance for survival.
Camp Humphreys, in Anjung-Ri, was one of the earliest bases, and some of the women who worked there after the war still live there. Now in their 70s and 80s, they are having a difficult time. Sunlit Sisters Center reaches out to these elderly women.
Korean culture has been especially hard on these women because not only were they working in the sex trade, they were working with foreigners. The women are ostracized and referred to as yanggalbo or Western whore and yanggongju or Western princess. Abandoned by society, they have no family to fall back on and lack a solid support system. Most of the women who did have children gave them up for adoption to spare them the harsh discrimination against Amerasian children, originally Asian children with U.S. soldier fathers.
These women are victims of the Korean War. They are victims of history.
Although prostitution was illegal in Korea, that law was never enforced. In fact, prostitution with U.S. servicemen was encouraged because the Korean government desperately needed hard cash. The Korean government sponsored classes in English and etiquette, believing this would help the women attract more business. The women relocated to areas far from their homes and were often shunned by their own families who felt shamed by them. The women no longer had a hometown.
The Sunlit Sisters Center is a white house down a quiet lane. It is funded by churches and women’s groups, including seed grants from United Methodist Women in its early days and ongoing support from Korean Women’s Society of Christian Service.
It was hard work for Ms. Woo to get the retired women to trust her. The women are shy and do not like to remember or talk about their unhappy past. During the war, the government ran medical clinics and kept a list of the old sex workers from the area. Ms. Woo got a copy of their names and started visiting them for afternoon tea. Slowly, she succeeded in establishing relationships with them and earning their trust.
As Ms. Woo began to know the wo-men, she learned more about their needs and problems. The women live alone in small rooms. To add insult to injury, they are in the process of losing even these homes to the expansion of the army base. Many of the women still feel ashamed of their previous life and asked that their faces not be shown in the photos accompanying this article. Others have come to terms with their past and don’t care.
The Sunlit Sisters Center helps the women with their medical needs and gives them food supplies donated by businesses in the community. Ms. Woo arranges birthday parties for them and on more solemn occasions, memorial services. When they have problems with their pensions or rentals, she arranges legal assistance.
Sometimes there are happy endings. Through a social service agency, Ms. Woo helped reunite one of the women with a son she gave up for adoption 34 years ago. Ms. Woo also reaches out to Amerasian children in the community who are discriminated against and arranges outings for them.
And Ms. Woo has gotten the local community involved in the Sunlit Sisters Center. As the volunteers get to know the women, their attitudes change, and they can see the women’s lives in an historic context. The neighbors come to volunteer, offering what they can. Volunteer Dong Hwan Goh does dance workshops with the women, while volunteer Sue Je Gage teaches English to the women.
Every Tuesday Ms. Woo comes to the Sunlit Sisters Center to socialize and lead a prayer meeting that’s followed by lunch. But what makes this day even more special is the foot massages the women all receive from specially trained volunteers from the city. In many Asian countries to touch someone’s feet is a symbol of respect, “which these women certainly deserve, after all they’ve been through,” Ms. Woo says, as she hugs the ladies goodbye.
Jane Schreibman is a photojournalist living in New York City. She travels internationally to report on the work of nonprofit organizations.