[코리아 헤럴드=이다영 기자] 올해로 56세인 민수화 (*가명)씨는 외출할 때 늘 우산을 들고 다닌다. 반신이 마비돼 우산에 지탱하지 않으면 제대로 걸을수가 없어서다. 80년대 중반, 의정부 미군 기지촌에서 성매매 일을 그만둔 직후 그는 급격하게 살이 쪘다. 마약중독으로 37kg였던 앙상했던 몸은 78kg가 되었고, 체중 증가는 한쪽 다리의 마비로 이어졌다.
“19살에 의정부에 와서 외국인들을 생전 처음 봤어요. 약을 먹지 않으면 무서워서 일을 할 수가 없었어요. 하루에 옥시코돈 (신경안정제의 일종)을 10알씩 먹었던 것 같아요. 약을 먹어야 손님들에게 다가갈 용기가 났어요. 그리고 금방 중독됐죠.”
민씨는 작년 국가를 상대로 손해배상청구소송을 낸 미군 기지촌 내에서 성매매에 종사했던 120여명 중 한 명이다. 그는 스스로를 ‘양공주’가 아니라 인신매매 피해자라고 칭했다. 1979년, 19살이었던 민씨가 어려웠던 가계를 돕기 위해 직업소개소를 찾아갔던 것이 불행의 시작이었다. 그의 아버지는 알콜중독을 앓고 있던 무직자였고, 어머니가 근근히 막노동을 하며 생계를 이어나가는 형편이었다.
“국민학교 졸업 이후 학교는 못 다녔어요. 공장에서 일을 했는데 월급을 제대로 받은 적이 거의 없어요. 19살 때 언니는 이미 다른 공장으로 일하러 떠났고, 동생이 제 밑으로 둘 있었어요. 돈이 모자라 늘 먹을걸 걱정했어요. 그래서 숙식이 해결되는 일자리가 필요했어요.”
직업소개소에서 “숙식이 해결되는 일자리”라며 민씨를 보낸 곳은 다름아닌 미군을 대상으로 하는 기지촌의 한 클럽이었다. 처음부터 잘못됐다는 생각이 들었지만 도망가기란 불가능했다. 늘 감시자가 그를 따라다녔고, 그도 모르는 사이에 포주에게 진 빚이 쌓여갔다. 그의 ‘빚’에는 포주가 그를 고용하기 위해 직업소개소에 지불한 ‘소개비,’그가 기거하던 방값, 식대비, 가구값 등이 포함됐다. 그는 유일하게 빚을 갚는 방법은 일을 더 많이, 열심히 하는 것밖에는 없다고 생각했다. 그는 79년부터 80년대 중반까지 기지촌 생활을 했다.
가장 힘들었던 것 중 하나는 한국 정부에 의해 매주 강제로 받아야 했던 성병 검진이었다. 검사 결과가 양성으로 나오면 견디기 매우 고통스러운 페니실린 주사를 맞아야 했고, 3,4일간 보건소에 갇혀 있어야 했다.
“페니실린은 한번 맞으면 정말 한쪽 다리가 찢겨나가는 듯한 느낌이었어요. 거의 걸을 수가 없었죠. 페니실린 주사가 너무 무서워서 동료들과 약국에 가서 검진 전에 항생제 주사약을 미리 사서 스스로 주사하곤 했어요. 그렇게라도 해서 검사 결과가 어떻게든 음성으로 나오길 바라면서요.”
민씨는 한국 정부가 시행했던 검진이 기지촌 여성들을 위한 것이 아니라 미군 기지 내 성병 발병을 방지하기 위한 것이었다고 주장했다. 그와 동료들은 늘 마지막 검진일이 표기된 ‘검진 카드’를 소지하고 다녀야 했다. 가끔 길거리에서 무차별로 단속이 이뤄졌다. 단속됐을 때 검진 카드가 없으면 여성들은 보건소로 끌려갔다. 공무원들은 종종 그들에게 ‘자부심을 가지고 일하라’라는 말을 했다.
“우리의 건강을 위한 검진이었다면 마약 중독에 대해서도 어떤 대책이 있었겠죠. 오로시 성병만 단속했지 마약 중독은 그냥 내버려뒀어요. 중독은 스스로를 잊어버리게 해요. 나중엔 마약에 의존해서 살고. 그걸 안하면 못 살 것 같으니까 마약 사기 위해서 돈 벌고, 또 돈 벌어서 마약 사고. 정부는 그냥 우리같은 여자들은 내팽개쳐버린 거죠.”
유승희 의원실이 배포한 자료에 따르면 현재 기지촌 여성들은 대부분 50만원 미만의 소득으로 생계를 유지할 정도로 생활고에 시달리고 있다. 민씨 역시 몸이 불편하여 국민기초생활 급여로 혼자 생활하고 있다. 80년대 초반엔 손님으로 만났던 미군과 잠시 결혼도 했었다. 아이도 낳았다. 그러나 결혼 이후 남편의 의처증과 가정 폭력이 시작되었고 3년만에 이혼했다. 83년 당시 8개월이었던 아들은 남편이 미국으로 데려갔다. 그 이후 한번도 만난 적이 없다. 아들이 늘 보고는 싶지만, 엄마로서 떳떳하지 못하니 굳이 찾아보고 싶지 않다고 했다.
“내가 뭘 하고 살았는지도 가끔 잘 모르겠어요. 무엇을 위해서 왜 살았는가, 이런 거요. 그냥 참으면서 세월이 흘러간거죠. 꿈이나 목적, 이런 건 생각해본 적도 없고. 가장 크게 잃은 건 시간 같아요. 그 시간에 대한 사과를 받고 싶어요.”
<관련 영문 기사> ‘My country pimped me to U.S. soldiers’Former South Korean ‘comfort woman’ for U.S. military shares why she decided to sue her own government.
UIJEONGBU, Gyeonggi Province -- Near the U.S. military base in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, there is an old, white cement building that now serves as a shelter for former sex workers for U.S. soldiers in the region.
For Min Su-hwa (not her real name), it is also where she was forced to get weekly checkups with painful treatments for sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s. The building used to be a state-run health clinic for Korean sex workers who served U.S. troops, including her.
“The worst was the penicillin injection,” the 56-year-old told The Korea Herald at the shelter. “It hurt so much that it felt like my leg was literally tearing off.”
Min is one of 122 Korean women who filed a compensation suit against the Korean government last year, claiming the state collaborated with pimps to run brothels for U.S. troops from 1960s to 1980s, allowing human trafficking and other forms of abuse against the “comfort women.”
Suffering from aftereffects of a drug addiction she developed while working as a sex worker, Min walks while putting her weight on an umbrella, as half of her body has been paralyzed. She is currently unable to work and lives alone, relying on government subsidies for most of her income.
“What I want is a heartfelt apology,” she said. “The government didn’t treat us like its citizens. My country pimped me to U.S. soldiers.”Trafficked
Min was 19 when she decided to leave home and find a job to support her family. It was 1979, and she had been working as a factory worker for about six years, right after graduating from an elementary school. As a child worker she was never properly paid. Her father was an unemployed alcoholic, while her mother worked as a construction worker part-time.
“We were so poor we always worried about food,” she said. “My older sister had already left home to work at a factory. I had two younger siblings to support. I needed a job that would give me shelter and food.”
When she visited a job placement agency, Min was told that there was a job that would give her food and a place to stay. The agency sent her to a property in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, where, upon her arrival, she was abruptly told by her new employer to put on makeup. She was then taken to a club filled with U.S. soldiers. That’s when she realized she had been sold by the agency into a brothel that exclusively targeted U.S. military soldiers stationed in the region.
“I was so scared that I had to take tranquilizer pills to work,” Min said. “I would take about 10 pills every day and soon became addicted.”
From 1979 until the mid-1980s, Min was constantly monitored by her employer, while working full-time as a sex worker. Meanwhile, everything she needed at the brothel became a debt she owed to her pimp, from hair products and furniture to food and rent for her room. Her customers – U.S. soldiers -- were not required to use protection. Instead, all sex workers were required get checkups for sexually transmitted infections once a week.
Fleeing was never an option. Not even the police would help the women, she said.
“Many tried to run away to the police station,” she said. “The pimps would just show up at the office and simply tell the police that we owed them money. And the police would let the pimps take us away.”
According to Min, the weekly health checkups were organized by the Korean government and not showing up to them meant being locked up at a separate medical facility for three to four days. Whenever they tested positive for a venereal disease, the women were forced to get penicillin injections in isolation.
The injections of the drug were so painful that some women, including Min, would purchase any antibiotics available at local pharmacies and inject themselves prior to checkups to prevent testing positive in the hope of avoiding penicillin injections.
“I heard one woman went into shock and died shortly after getting an injection,” she said.
All women were required carry a card that showed their latest STI checkup date at all times. Sometimes Korean public servants would randomly ask any woman on street to show their checkup card. If they didn’t have the card with them, they’d be forcefully taken to the nearest clinic and get another checkup, or be locked up with no further explanation.
Min argued that if the government indeed cared for the women’s health, it would have done something about the collective drug addiction, as there was no way the public servants were unaware of the problem. But no woman, as far as she knows, was offered any government help on tackling addiction, she said.
“You didn’t have to carry your identification card, but you had to have that STI checkup card all the time,” she said.
“Of course the government didn’t do this for our health. The only purpose was to make sure the U.S. soldiers didn’t get any diseases from us. Whenever a soldier’s test turned out positive, the Korean public servants would crack down on the clubs and forcefully take away whoever slept with the guy for another penicillin injection in isolation.”Workplace abuse
Sometimes, women were physically abused by the U.S. soldiers. One woman Min knew was stabbed by her customer. Another was beaten by a customer so badly that her eye fell out. As far as Min knows, the customers got away with no punishment from the Korean authorities.
The women were also made to attend classes provided by the Korean government on various sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms. Some public servants told Min to be “proud,” as she was doing “something good” for her country by bringing in foreign currency.
“Now I take that as ‘have your body free from possible infections and offer it to the U.S. soldiers,’” she said. “That’s literally what the government wanted from us.”
Last year, Gender Equality Minister Kim Hee-jung said the government would not comment on the survivors’ lawsuit until the ruling was made. The ministry again refused to comment on Min and others’ claims when contacted by The Korea Herald.
Yet the case is often compared with the one of surviving Korean women who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during World War II.
Seoul has been making repeated demands that Tokyo take responsibility and offer an apology and legal reparation for the Korean wartime victims.
Sociology professor Lee Na-young from Chung-Ang University said the two cases in fact share a lot of similarities, and the South Korean government needs to acknowledge “comfort women” for the U.S. troops as victims in order to avoid repeating military violence against women.
In her report submitted to the National Assembly, Lee noted that both the women serving the Japanese and those serving U.S. troops were enslaved to work in military-regulated brothels for soldiers only and were required to regularly get tested for STIs by state-designated medical professionals.
“Many U.S. military bases in Korea were in fact ex-Japanese military bases during the colonial rule, so it is very likely that the U.S. troops used the same facilities that were used by the Japanese for the sex trade,” Lee wrote.
Lee also pointed out in her report that while the Korean government violated the women’s human rights, many Korean civilians – such as the owners of the clubs and brothels, and those who worked at job agencies -- also benefitted from the women’s suffering.
“If the state is dispensing selective justice by ignoring the suffering of the marginalized, what does that say about us as a nation?” she said.Health effects
Right before Min quit her job and drugs due to her deteriorating health in the mid-1980s, she weighed just 37 kilograms. She had been seriously addicted to tranquilizers, which she was introduced to by her colleagues during her first year as a sex worker.
As soon as she stopped taking the pills, Min experienced sudden weight gain, which was followed by skin rashes. Shortly after her weight reached 78 kilograms, one of her legs became paralyzed. Since then, she has been in chronic pain and unable to work.
According to a report submitted to the National Assembly by a civic group that supports the surviving “comfort women” for U.S. troops, the women currently make an average of less than 500,000 won ($430) a month, with 70 percent of their income coming from government subsidies doled out for below-average income households. According to a study by Gangneung-Wonju National University, which tested 45 surviving women with an average age of 63, more than 65 percent suffered from obesity, while 57.7 percent had high blood pressure.
“I’ve been relying on opioids,” Min said. “My body has never been normal since the drug addiction.”
During her years as a sex worker, her only consolation was to be able to wire money to her mother and her siblings. To this day, her family members don’t know that she worked as a sex worker. “I lied and said I worked at a factory,” she said. “I would never tell them. It would make them feel terrible.”
One of her worst memories involves with being insulted by strangers on street, who called her yanggalbo (Western whore) or yanggongju (Western princess).
“I guess they had no idea that I did not sign up to be a yanggongju,” she said. “No one saw us as victims. We were just constantly shamed by society. Many assumed I got into the profession because I wanted to.”
She said it was only in the 1990s that she started to recognize herself as a victim.
“Before that, I’d been too busy enduring life,” she said. “I’ve never had any hopes, purpose or dreams for life. I simply endured the times. What I want is an apology for those times -- the times that I lost.”
While Min wants an apology from both the U.S. and Korean governments, she feels the Korean government is more responsible for reparations.
“I’m a Korean citizen and the government had the responsibility to take care of me,” she said. “What it did was exactly the opposite of that.”
By Claire Lee (email@example.com