The ROK Army Used Vietnamese Comfort Women （No restrictions on retransmission)
This is the text of a scoop article written by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the Washington Bureau Chief of TBS Television (at the time), which was published in the Shukan Bunshun Magazine dated April 2, 2015.
I have obtained permission from Mr. Yamaguchi to distribute a full English/Japanese version.
This is based on the original version which I received from the author directly, so it may be slightly different from what was actually published after editing.
This is true history revealed by Mr. Yamaguchi's painstaking research. These are facts recorded in official documents of the United States government. It also includes detailed accounts by people who have direct knowledge of the situation at the time.
In addition, the Korean Hankyoreh newspaper recognized "This is vexing, but difficult to refute."
However, this event is being ignored in its entirety by The Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo newspapers in Korea, as well as by the Korean government. Have any of the Japanese media aside from Bunshun and the Sankei group covered this scoop? Come to think of it, this should be included in the McGraw-Hill history textbooks in the U.S.!
Historical Scoop! The ROK Army Used Vietnamese Comfort Women
Official U.S. Secret Documents Put President Park in a Tight Spot
(Shukan Bunshun: April 2, 2015, pp. 30-35)
By Noriyuki Yamaguchi, TBS Television Washington Bureau Chief
Born in 1966, and a graduate of Keio University, Yamaguchi joined TBS in 1990. After working as a news cameraman, as the London Bureau Chief, in the Local News Section (covering police, Ministry of Transportation, etc.), and in the Political Section (covering Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister’s Office, etc.), he was transferred to the U.S., and is the current Washington Bureau Chief (at time of publication).
On March 21, the foreign ministers of Japan, China, and Korea met in Seoul for the first time in three years. The discussions between Japan and Korea on the comfort women issue yielded no progress. But if Korean troops had done the same thing, then what? As a result of thorough research of official U.S. government archives and field reporting on the ground in Vietnam, the truth about Korean troops during the Vietnam War is unveiled here.
First, let me tell you why I started gathering information for a news story on the ROK army during the Vietnam War as TBS Television’s Washington Bureau chief.
Shortly before I took up my position in the U.S. in the early summer of 2013, a foreign affairs official who had long been involved with Japan-ROK relations and who had had dinner with Park Geun-hye when she was still in the opposition told me:
“President Park got herself into a cul-de-sac soon after taking office by raising the comfort women issue.”
Park, who became the 18th president of the ROK in February 2013, indicated she was going to take a tough stance toward Japan on the comfort women issue straightaway.
The ROK enacted a “special law on fact finding on pro-Japanese and anti-national acts” in 2004 to punish collaborators during the Japanese colonial rule. Park’s father, former President Park Chung-hee, was an officer in the Japanese army during the colonial period. She suffered a lot as a result of this law.
“Criticizing Japan to clear her father’s pro-Japanese reputation came to be her raison d’etre. Since the comfort women issue has become a tool to prove her anti-Japanese stance, she no longer has the option of resolving this issue on her own. This issue has become a domestic political issue for South Korea.”
So, isn’t there a solution to the Japan-ROK dispute over the comfort women issue? His answer to my question was:
“You may find clues to a solution in the U.S., where you will be going to work.”
What is to be found in faraway America?
“Actually, I have unconfirmed information that during the Vietnam War, the ROK army operated comfort stations in many places in South Vietnam. If you are able to substantiate this with U.S. government documents, an additional dimension to the comfort women issue will be that the ROK was also a ‘perpetrator.’ If this results in President Park and the South Korean people coming to their senses and dealing with the comfort women issue in good faith, the situation may change.”
Encouraged by this person who was truly concerned by the current state of the Japan-ROK relationship, I began to look for previously undiscovered official documents all over the U.S. after I took up my job in Washington in September 2013.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the official body in the U.S. that preserves government documents and materials deemed to be of significant historical value. It has archives in 33 locations in the country with a collection of 400 billion pages of documents, 300,000 videos, 5 million maps, statistics, and so forth. It is the biggest archive in the world that preserves such materials and makes them available to the public.
The NARA has an extensive collection of official documents and video footage on the Vietnam War from the start of the North-South civil war in 1960 to the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973.
The Vietnam War, which turned into a major war in the 1960s, was called a proxy Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it was fought between North Vietnam, supported by the USSR, China, and the Communist camp, and South Vietnam, backed by the U.S., Taiwan, and the free nations.
South Korea was devastated by the Korean War in the first half of the 1950s. It became one of the poorest countries in the world. Park Chung-hee, who became its fifth president in 1963, regarded the Vietnam War as a golden opportunity for national reconstruction. Through dogged negotiations, he was able to obtain subsidies and an immigration quota from the U.S. government in return for sending troops to Vietnam. The ROK began sending a substantial number of troops in 1965. A total of 310,000 South Korean forces were deployed in South Vietnam, a number second only to the U.S. forces.
Various official documents on the ROK army during the Vietnam War can be found in many locations in the U.S. I tried to find time in between my regular duties as the Washington Bureau chief to visit various archives in Washington and Maryland nearby. I also visited libraries and archives of U.S. military bases or sent researchers to these places, making copies of a considerable volume of documents and browsing through them.
Records of exchanges at all levels, from letters of the key persons at that time – such as President John F. Kennedy (1960-63), President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69), and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961-68) – to memos of diplomats and military officers gave me a real sense of the situation at that time that was impossible for textbooks or history books to convey.
At first, I focused on reading and analyzing diplomatic documents of the White House and the State Department. What I found out was that the U.S. government at that time was having serious trouble dealing with the South Korean soldiers’ behavior in Vietnam.
Records of South Korean soldiers’ atrocities began soon after full-fledged deployment in 1965. There were numerous records of all sorts of criminal acts, from the massacre and rape of citizens in the field, to counterfeiting of currency in Saigon and other cities, to selling supplies on the black market and peddling of drugs.
The U.S. military command sent many letters to the ROK army command, asking for punishment of offenders and measures to prevent recurrence but the situation continued to deteriorate.
In 1970, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs even set up a special team to investigate the ROK army’s atrocities.
However, most of the diplomatic documents concerned killings and economic crimes. I could not find any record of the ROK army’s comfort stations.
Therefore, I changed the focus of my research. I thought if the ROK soldiers’ actions were a problem, there must have been criminal or court records. From spring 2014, I began to look into criminal records of the U.S. military government and the military police. I copied the documents in chronological order and read through them. They gave an even more vivid picture of the rapes, assaults, thefts, stealing of military supplies, and other crimes committed by South Korean soldiers.
“ROK Army Comfort Station” in Saigon
In the middle of the night on July 25, I was reading the criminal records page by page alone, as usual, in a small room in the Washington Bureau office. I came across a letter.
This letter was sent by the U.S. forces command in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to the ROK forces commander in Saigon. The addressee was Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, the highest commander of ROK forces in Vietnam.
While there was no date on this letter, the letter was most probably written between January and April in 1969, based on the other documents arranged in chronological order and other information I obtained on the subject matter in this letter.
The main topic of the letter was economic crimes the South Korean soldiers were involved in. A large amount of U.S. military exchange merchandise was being sold on black market currency exchange rates. One establishment where such criminal activities took place was the Turkish Bath in downtown Saigon.
According to the letter, “prostitutes are available and Vietnamese women work there.”
A joint investigation by the U.S. forces and the Vietnamese customs authorities found that “the Turkish Bath was a Republic of Korea Army Welfare Center for the sole benefit of Korean troops.”
I was amazed, so I read through the letter several times. Based on its investigation, the U.S. military command determined that the establishment was a “comfort station for Korean troops.”
The U.S. military command’s conclusion was based on the following:
First, one of the seized documents, signed by the ROK army’s assistant special services officer, indicated that the Turkish Bath was an ROK army welfare center for the sole benefit of Korean troops.
Furthermore, documents signed by a senior ROK military officer were produced at the Vietnamese customs building in an attempt to secure the release of the goods confiscated during the raid.
The U.S. military command further provided the Korean commander with the names of six colonels, lieutenant colonels, and other military officers thought to be involved with the economic crimes. Since this was a letter notifying the commander of an allied force about the crimes committed by his subordinates, it must have been solidly based on an investigation and evidence.
How was the ROK army comfort station in Saigon that has come to light through a U.S. archive document operated?
I would have wanted to fly to Vietnam immediately to investigate, but as the Washington Bureau chief, it was difficult to take leave from my job for an extended period. Therefore, I began research to find out if there was anybody in the U.S. who was knowledgeable about the sex industry in Saigon at that time or who knew about the establishment in question.
I focused first on former U.S. military personnel and Vietnamese-Americans and looked for Vietnam-related networks in the U.S. I attended the relevant forums, looked into the databases of the U.S. government’s Department of Veteran Affairs, and sent letters and e-mails to people with known contact information who might know. I also placed an advertisement in a newspaper in the Vietnamese community in Virginia outside Washington, asking for information. Shortly after, an American who saw the
ad sent me an e-mail.
Hans Ekes [spelling not confirmed], 70, was sent by an American communication infrastructure company to Saigon in the late 1960s. Ekes, who traveled back and forth between Vietnam and the U.S. for several years, is a pensioner living in eastern Virginia. He talked at length about what Saigon was like, since the city made a strong impression on him as a young man. However, when we asked about the Turkish Bath, he suddenly lowered his voice and became wary of people around us.
“At that time, people in Saigon called the Turkish Bath a ‘steam and cream parlor’ because it was a place where you could avail yourself of the sexual services of young Vietnamese women.”
It became clear from the statements that the Turkish baths in Saigon at that time were another name for brothels, like in Japan in the past. However, I had difficulty finding someone who knew about the ROK army’s comfort station.
About six months after I started the research, I received an e-mail from a U.S. veteran who fought in the Vietnam War.
Andrew Finlayson, 71, served with the U.S. Marines’ infantry unit in the Vietnam War for two years and eight months from 1967 and fought in various locations in South Vietnam. After leaving the military, he served in military adviser groups in conflict areas. He is a researcher and has published books on the Vietnam War. He agreed to be interviewed.
Soldiers’ “Rest and Recuperation”
In early winter last year, when it was becoming cold in the mornings and evenings, Finlayson, wearing a black turtleneck sweater and a jacket, appeared at a small hotel in Virginia. He looked like an affable gentleman but his thick chest and piercing eyes disclosed that he was a former marine officer.
Contrary to his looks, Finlayson, a researcher, spoke quietly with the manner of an intellectual. He said:
“There was indeed a ROK army comfort station in Saigon. I knew about it very well.”
Finlayson was responsible for reconnaissance teams in the rural villages in South Vietnam, so he was involved with liaison with the ROK army and was familiar with the situation at that time.
“The ROK army comfort station cited by the U.S. military commander was a major sexual facility for the South Korean soldiers. It was precisely a facility for providing sexual services to these soldiers.”
According to Finlayson, it was a Turkish bath of an enormous size. However, according to Finlayson, there was an even bigger facility in another location in Saigon. These facilities were divided into blocs inside. Around 20 Vietnamese women worked in each bloc.
When asked why the ROK army had to set up large comfort stations in Saigon, Finlayson responded immediately:
“This was to prevent South Korean soldiers from raping Vietnamese women or having individual sexual relations with them. There was also concern that South Korean officers might keep prostitutes as mistresses in Vietnamese villages. These things might develop into political trouble between the Vietnamese society and the ROK army.
“Venereal diseases were also a serious concern for the armed forces. It would be possible to manage the health of the comfort women at the comfort stations. At that time, venereal disease was a serious problem in South Vietnam. Syphilis was particularly rampant.”
During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers who fought on the front lines for a certain period of time were allowed to leave the battlefield for R&R (rest and recuperation) in Saigon. Apparently, the ROK army set up comfort stations in Saigon for the soldiers so that they would not make trouble in Saigon and the nearby villages while on R&R and to prevent the spread of venereal disease.
Who were the Vietnamese women made to serve the South Korean soldiers?
Finlayson said they were almost invariably young girls from the rural villages in Vietnam.
“Women who worked in these brothels were almost invariably very young girls from the rural areas.
“They were there for various reasons. There were girls who were sold by their families due to poverty. Some went there of their own free will. They lost their jobs and became comfort women. For sure, there were also women who were deceived and brought there.”
The letter mentioned earlier wrote that while this facility was set up as a comfort station for the sole benefit of the Korean troops, U.S. soldiers and members of other allied forces were given special access, in which case, they were charged $38 each time. Finlayson explained why this happened.
A U.S. veteran who had once gone to the facility provided the following information on the condition of anonymity:
“Most of the women who worked in the Turkish baths were girls from the rural villages under 20 years old. Some said they were 16 and others looked even younger. Many soldiers went so gaga over these simple petite girls that they were ridiculed as having the ‘yellow fever’.”
This man in his 70s and living in New Jersey said that the comfort station in question was a large-scale facility including several adjacent buildings, and an annex across the street. On later investigation, I confirmed that the building housing this facility actually still exists today, and that this facility was operated together with two adjacent buildings and there was also an annex across the street, matching his description. I felt that his incredible account that the majority of the
Vietnamese comfort women were minors was reliable.
Finlayson gave the following reasons for why friendly forces were accepted at a Korean Comfort Women facility.
South Korean Government Policy?
“There were seasonal fluctuations in the number of South Korean soldiers coming to Saigon for R&R. Therefore, this facility set up for the exclusive use of ROK troops came to accept soldiers of the allied forces during low seasons.”
Finlayson was unequivocal in answering all my questions. His explanation also corresponded completely with what I had learned from archive documents and interviews with informed sources.
After the 90-minute meeting with Finlayson, I felt that several of the questions I had had throughout my 15 months of information gathering were answered. For sure, many facts still need to be uncovered regarding how the ROK army set up the comfort stations, their size, and how they were operated. However, there is no doubt that what could be called “urban comfort stations” set up by the ROK army existed in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
So, how do the Vietnamese feel about the ROK army’s comfort stations? I asked Dr. Nguyen Goc Bich, a former Vietnamese government official who now resides in Washington.
I met Bich at a forum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War in Washington last summer. He was born in the port city of Danang in central Vietnam and grew up in Saigon. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1958, shortly before the Vietnam War intensified. He is a scholar who taught Asian literature at several U.S. universities after studying at Colombia University and Kyoto University.
He was familiar with the killings and other atrocities committed by the ROK army during the Vietnam War but did not know about the comfort stations. Bich is a pleasant gray-haired gentleman, but after reading the letter in question, his facial expression hardened.
“If the South Korean army had indeed done those terrible things to the Vietnamese, our people will absolutely not overlook this fact.
Bich, who also chairs an organization of Vietnamese in America, said that the Vietnamese people “talk about events 2,000 years ago as if they happened yesterday.”
“If crimes and hideous acts were committed, evil is evil whether Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese or Americans were responsible.”
“We must talk to the ROK, conduct investigations, negotiate, and find out the facts following our conscience. This issue cannot be resolved and will continue to poison bilateral relations unless we find out the truth.”
Bich was most interested in whether the setting up of comfort stations was a ROK government decision.
“If this was not an act by a bunch of bad guys and was the result of an ROK government policy, it should not be overlooked. There is no way to justify such an act if the state was involved.”
If the ROK government and army were involved in the systematic operation of comfort stations for the sake of maintaining the armed forces’ discipline and preventing venereal disease, this was certainly a government action. And this was a system that was exactly the same as the Japanese Imperial Army’s comfort stations that the ROK government has criticized relentlessly.
Perhaps this was understandable. The president at that time, Park Chung-hee, fought in Manchuria as a member of the Japanese army during the Pacific War after he graduated from a military academy in Japan. He must have been very familiar with the operation and functions of the Japanese army’s comfort stations. Commander Chae Myung Shin, the addressee of the letter, was given a high level position shortly after Park Chung-hee succeeded in his coup d’etat in 1961. He was one of Park’s closest
Chae admitted that the ROK army set up comfort stations during the Korean War in his autobiography published in 1994.
It would be quite natural for the ROK army, which participated in the Vietnam War less than 10 years after the end of the Korean War, to operate comfort stations. It can be said that the decision to operate comfort stations was made during the Vietnam War precisely because Park and Chae headed the government and the armed forces at that time.
Meanwhile, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, President Park Geun-hye, has persisted in criticizing harshly the Japanese army’s comfort stations in the international community. She told the world in her address to the UN General Assembly last fall:
“Sexual violence against women in wartime is a clear violation of human rights and humanism regardless of time and place.”
Now that an official U.S. document has shown that the ROK army operated a comfort station in Vietnam, President Park has to take responsibility for her own words.
If she truly regards the comfort women issue as a human rights issue and not as a tool in domestic politics and foreign affairs, she ought to think of the young Vietnamese girls who serviced the South Korean soldiers in Saigon. How many girls were made to work as comfort women under what circumstances? Were there not women forced to become comfort women against their will? She should take the lead in investigating their working conditions, just like what was done for the former South Korean comfort women.
She ought to investigate the similarities and differences between the South Korean and Japanese comfort stations and find out what were the issues with these facilities. I believe it is only by taking an impartial approach that the comfort women issue in both countries can be sorted out and the foundation for the two countries to achieve true reconciliation can be laid.
However, if the ROK government suppresses this issue and denies it without even conducting an investigation, it will be proving to the international community that it is the ROK that is a country that turns a blind eye to inconvenient facts and refuses to face history squarely.