In Remembrance of Wartime “Comfort Women”

K. Christine Pae

“I’m sorry?” I did not understand what he was asking until he mumbled, “Korea is an axis of evil … has nuclear weapons … and wants to bomb us.”

“Well, that’s North Korea and I am from South Korea. There are two Koreas,” I explained.

When I recall this conversation, I am reminded that I am from a “war zone.”1 Although I have never experienced armed conflict, my Korean identity sometimes gives me feelings of horror, uncertainty, and deep sorrow caused by war and by the division of the Korean peninsula. Ann Joh’s theological reflection translates these feelings that “The DMZ2 reminds one of a visible scar, a wound running along the body of Korea … This wound is constantly poked and torn open fresh with barely enough time to form a scab.”3

Life During Wartime

It was not an accident that I would focus my academic training of Christian feminist ethics on life during wartime – more specifically, how war affects women’s and men’s lives differently. This theological and intellectual curiosity first arose when I learned that the “comfort women” system, the system of military sexual slavery and forced military prostitution in Korea, was systematically controlled by the state and yet publicly silenced for the sake of international peace and security. Unfortunately, military prostitution and sexual slavery are found in almost every conflict zone, not just in Korea. The more I incorporate a feminist gender analysis of war into my theo-ethical contemplation on peacemaking, the more convinced I am that excessive military-based security, as demonstrated by the gender-based wartime ordeal of the “comfort women” system in Korea, is a root cause of oppression of women transnationally. Without analyzing and abolishing the gender-based military violence, “global peace” is mere empty rhetoric.

In “Your Comfort vs. My Death,” Korean feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung states that for Korean women, the “comfort woman” narrative is the “root story” of what it means to be a woman. This strange and familiar story haunts each Korean woman who hears it.4

During World War II, imperial Japan kidnapped or forcefully drafted women from their occupied territories, including Korea, Northern China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. These women were forced to be sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers. According to Chung, the system of comfort women that targeted many Korean women was instituted because 1) imperial Japan had to control the sexual desires and venereal diseases of its soldiers, who often raped local women or slept with sex workers, by providing allegedly clean Korean women, who lived under the neo-Confucian law of chastity; and 2) some “comfort” and recreation had to be provided for Japanese soldiers, who were anxious about losing the war.5 Imperial Japan carried out its warfare at the cost of the bodies of comfort women.

Unfortunately, the comfort women system did not cease to exist when Korea won independence from imperial Japan after World War II. Rather, the system evolved into a new form for American soldiers.

For the Sake of National Security

Soon after gaining independence, the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out.6 The war was theologically justified by Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr because the United States felt responsible for protecting democracy in the Far East against evil communist North Korea, allegedly controlled by China and the former Soviet Union.7

The real tragedy of the Korean War is not simply that the war resolved nothing, but that the country has been divided ever since, guaranteeing consistent, extreme tension between the North and South for six decades now. One of the legacies of the war was the practice of U.S. military prostitution, the use of Korean sex workers who became America’s “comfort women.”8

Throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars, the so-called Relaxation and Recreation business had been systematized around the U.S. military camps in South Korea. More than a million Korean women have sexually catered to U.S. soldiers for economic gain.9 Researching U.S. military prostitution in South Korea, I learned that a significant number of Korean women entered the U.S. military sex industry in order to support their families and that these women were under governmental surveillance. Even today, camp towns around U.S. military bases import women from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. U.S. military sex workers’ voices, in spite of their consistent experience of sexual assault, rape, physical abuse, and exploitation, have been silenced, both by the Korean government and U.S. forces in Korea, for the sake of national security.

The modern “comfort woman” system is no longer a unique issue in Korea or the root story only of Korean women, because gender-based wartime

sexual violence has become so common in various conflict zones. For instance, the International Red Cross’s study of post-conflict African countries found that in nations such as Rwanda, Sierra Leon, Congo, and Nigeria, survivors of rape or sexual violence are accused of adultery and prostitution.10 In the Rwandan genocide, the survivors of rape bore an estimated three thousand to five thousand children. These children, called the “unwanted children” or “children of bad memories,” have faced rejection from their society just as many bi-racial children of American soldiers and Korean sex workers have been ostracized in South Korea.11

Uncontrollable Drives

Cynthia Enloe, a feminist scholar of international relations, argues that “in our society there is a wide- spread belief that soldiers’ sexuality is determined by uncontrollable ‘drives.’ ”12 While sounding tough and manly regarding military matters, politicians secretly seek safe commercialized sex for soldiers with “uncontrollable” sexual drives in order to avoid the diplomatic issue of military rape in foreign countries. These politicians share a patriarchal assumption that sexual entertainment of soldiers is essential to maintaining military morale.13

Such cultural habits and prejudices are difficult to break. Because of its widespread practice, wartime sexual violence is habitually considered an unavoidable byproduct of armed conflict. Only recently has wartime rape been redefined as a crime under the Geneva Conventions – and only after an estimated two thousand to five thousand Bosnian Muslim women were systematically raped by Serbian soldiers.14

How can a Christian feminist analysis of military sexual violence such as the comfort women system change the discourse and practices of war and peacemaking? Here I present two suggestions.

First, women’s experience of wartime sexual violence must be examined in a theological framework. Instead of accepting wartime violence against women as a normal activity of modern warfare, we should insist that these horrific practices be judged by universal values of human dignity, integrity, and sacredness found at the center of God’s creation. Women’s perspectives on peace, an outgrowth of their particular experiences of war and militarism, must be included in Christian discourse on peacemaking.

Second, since women are the victims of armed conflicts across the globe, we should listen to women who are affected by war and wartime prejudice. 

Our churches and institutions should be intentional and systematic about hearing women’s witness to gender-based wartime violence – their experiences of military prostitution, rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy.

According to the United Nations’ The Impact of Violent Conflict on Women and Girls (2002), where cultures of violence and discrimination against women and girls exist prior to conflict, they are exacerbated during conflict. A lack of women’s voices in theological discussion and peacemaking has dire effects on women. This may reflect women’s status in the Christian community, and the church’s lack of commitment to protecting women’s human rights. Truly without gender equality within our faith community, gender-based sexual violence during wartime will continue. Grounded in steadfast faith in God’s peace and love, may we Christians liberate ourselves from gender inequality, violent conflict, hatred, and fear. 

K. Christine Pae ’03 M.Div. is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Denison University in Granville, OH. 


  1. Kwok Pui-Lan argues that before Asia emerged as a market for U.S. global capital, Asia was primarily seen as a war zone. See Kwok Pui-Lan, “Fishing the Asia Pacific” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion and Theology, edited by Rita Nakashima Brock (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 4.

  2. The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, or the Truce Line.

  3. Wonhee Anne Joh, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 29.

  4. Chung Hyun Kyung, “Your Comfort Vs. My Death,” in Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life, edited by Mary John Mananzan (Wipf and Stock, 2004), p. 132.

  5. Chung Hyun Kyung, pp. 133-34.

  6. There are various perspectives on Korean War – ranging from a civil war to the first globalized war.

  7. South Korea had been governed by the U.S. military from 1945 to 1948, while North Korea was under the Soviet Union. Lt. General John Hodge and his men were not politicians but warriors who had fought against imperial Japan in the Pacific for three years. When Hodge and his men landed at Inchon on Sept. 8, 1945, they carried with them “all of the prejudices and antagonisms generated by months of bitter warfare and propaganda against an Asian people.” After the sudden surrender of Japan, Gen. Douglas McArthur selected units on the basis of availability and transport, not expertise. As a result, Hodge became “the only man in history who was appointed a ruler over 20 million people on the basis of shipping time.” (Lisle Rose, Roots of Tragedy: The United States and the Struggle for Asia, 1945-1953 [Greenwood Press, 1976], pp. 98-101).

  8. Hye-Sun Kim, “American GIs and Paju” in The Newsletters of Pa Ju County II, (Pa Ju, South Korea, 1995).

  9. Katherine Moon, Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 24-32.

  10. 10 Anne F. Murray, From Outrage to Courage: Women Taking Action for Health and Justice (Common Courage Press, 2008), p. 155.

  11. Murray, p. 156.

  12. Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (California, 2004), p. 119.

  13. Enloe.

  14. Murray, p. 140.