SEOUL —A group of former prostitutes has filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government seeking more than $1.2 million in compensation, alleging that it exercised significant control over their activities, according to a report in Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

The women worked in special government-designated areas near U.S. military bases beginning in the late 1950s, according to the report. The South Korean government conducted mandatory testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and women who were infected were sent to government-run camps. The women claim their human rights were violated and are demanding the government investigate its past involvement in overseeing prostitution, “disclose historical facts” and provide an official apology, the Asahi Shimbun report said.

It is thought to be the first such legal action taken by women — now elderly, but known as “western princesses” during their youth — who once worked in brothels that catered primarily to U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula in the decades after the Korean War.

“These women are now old and weak because of disease and have no support,” Park Jeong-mi of Hanyang University’s Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture told Stars and Stripes. “They are being neglected, and they are angry.”

The Seoul Central District Court would not provide a copy of the lawsuit, filed June 25, due to court rules that bar the general release of such documents. A judge would not comment on the lawsuit except to say it is still being processed and a hearing date has not been set.

According to the country’s Supreme Court website, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of 122 people, who, judging by their names, appeared to be women. Both the South Korean government and Minister of Justice Hwang Gyo-ahn were named in the suit. Efforts to contact the women were not immediately successful. Two of three South Korean attorneys initially listed on the Supreme Court website as handling the case could not be reached for comment; a third said she would not discuss the case while it is pending. Several other attorneys have sincebeen added to that list.

All forms of prostitution have been illegal in South Korea since 2004, though the government previously allowed it at certain times in certain areas, including red-light districts and the areas around U.S. military bases.

Experts say the Korean government encouraged prostitutes to sleep with the U.S. troops stationed in the country since 1945 to keep them happy, and even praised them as diplomats for bringing dollars into the poor nation. Government oversight of the women ended by the late 1970s as the number of U.S. troops declined and the war-torn country’s economy showed significant growth.

No sources contacted for this story would say whether the women were forced to provide sex to U.S. troops or whether they did so voluntarily. However, the South Korean government has previously denied encouraging or forcing the women into prostitution.

U.S. Forces Korea referred questions about the lawsuit to the South Korean government, but said the command is aware of the case.

“USFK has a zero tolerance for prostiution and human trafficking. Prostitution and human trafficking is cruel, demeaning, and is incompatible with our military core values,” it said in an email. Twitter: @Rowland_Stripes

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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