Cho Myung-ja ran away from home as a teenager to escape a father who beat her, finding her way to the red light district in a South Korean town that hosts a large U.S. Army garrison.
After she escaped home in the early 1960s, her pimp sold her to one of the brothels allowed by the government to serve American soldiers.
“It was a hard life and we got sick,” Cho, 76, said in an interview in her cluttered room in a shack outside Camp Humphreys, a busy U.S. military garrison in the town of Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
On June 25, sixty-four years after the Korean War broke out, Cho joined 122 surviving comfort women, as they were called, in a lawsuit against their government to reclaim, they say, human dignity and proper compensation.
The suit comes as an embarrassing distraction for the South Korean government, which has pushed Japan to properly atone for what it says were World War Two atrocities including forcing women, many of them Korean, to serve as sex slaves for its soldiers.
The women claim the South Korean government trained them and worked with pimps to run a sex trade through the 1960s and 1970s for U.S. troops, encouraged women to work as prostitutes and violated their human rights.
The suit was lodged with the Seoul Central District Court and Reuters has seen the document laying out the accusations against the government and a demand for 10 million won ($9,800) in compensation per plaintiff.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family declined to comment on the lawsuit. The U.S. military in South Korea said it was aware of reports of the lawsuit.
“USFK has a zero tolerance for prostitution and human trafficking,” a U.S. Forces in Korea spokesman said in response to a request for comment. “Prostitution and human trafficking are cruel, demeaning and incompatible with our military core values.”
The South Korean government was desperate to keep U.S. troops in the 1960s after a devastating but inconclusive war with North Korea and wanted the women to serve as “patriots” and “civilian diplomats”.
The virtuous-sounding titles did little to reflect the life they led. They say they were forced by the South Korean government to undergo degrading checkups for sexually transmitted diseases and if the test was positive, locked up until they were “fit” to work.
“To make sure we didn’t pass on some disease to foreigners, we were tested twice a week, and if it looked abnormal, we would be locked up on the fourth floor, unlocking the door only at meal times, and some people broke their legs trying to escape,” Cho said amid the frequent hum of military aircraft.
Afterwards, they say they were neglected and forgotten, left to live out their lives in poverty, stigmatised for having worked as prostitutes.
The lawsuit is a culmination of work by a handful of small and regional NGOs that came together in 2008 to gather their testimonies and seek legal advice.
This week, an opposition member of parliament led a group of 10 liberal lawmakers to introduce a bill calling for a probe into the programme, formal recognition for the contribution made by the women and financial compensation.
Hundreds of former prostitutes continue to live clustered around military bases in South Korea, many of them ill and poor, without family and financially unable to move.
Working through the 1960s and 1970s, the women say they were treated as commodities used to boost a post-war economy.
They say the government, at the time a heavy-handed military dictatorship, ran classes for them in etiquette and praised them for earning dollars when South Korea was poor.
“They say we were patriots at the time, but now they couldn’t care less,” said another former prostitute, Kim Sook-ja, 70. “We didn’t fight with guns or bayonets but we worked for the country and earned dollars.”