Part 1: The Seoul Olympics, 25 years later
Part 2: The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Part 3: Americans and bad first impressions
Part 2: The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Between 1985, when the first case of AIDS was discovered in Korea, and early 1987, several people had been found to have HIV; most of them were either prostitutes who had contracted it from American soldiers or Korean sailors who had gotten it overseas. Things changed in early 1987, as a March 10, 1987 Korea Times article, “Law Eyed to Punish Spreaders of AIDS,” describes it:
On Feb. 12, a 62-year-old Korean man who produced a positive reaction in the blood test for the AIDS virus died of “respiratory paralysis” at a hospital in Seoul after returning from Kenya, the [Health-Social Affairs] ministry announced. He reportedly received a blood transfusion while in the African country.This announcement set off an AIDS panic in Korea, and numerous measures were planned to combat the disease, including making it mandatory to report all cases, setting up an AIDS hotline, designating hospitals for testing, and passing a special law. As the article continues, some planned measures included mandating that “those who fail to notify medicl [SIC] authorities of those who test positive to the AIDS virus may face imprisonment.” “The special law, now being prepared by the ministry, is expected to restrict the sexual activities of prostitutes and homosexuals who test positive for the AIDS virus.”
On February 20, 1987, the Korea Times’ cultural editor, Kim Song-hyeon, wrote an opinion piece titled “AIDS threat may be God’s warning to keep men from total destruction,” and listed the top ten countries for HIV cases up to the end of 1986. At the top of the list was the US, with almost 30,000 cases, while France, Brazil, West Germany, Canada, Haiti, Uganda, Tanzania, the UK, and Italy had between 1,300 and 460 cases each. Kim writes:
It is quite interesting to see that the United States, the most advanced and democratic country in the world, accounted for 72.2 percent of the cases, with nearly 30,000 cases and that no countries in the East European bloc were included on the list. Taking into consideration that the deadly disease has been most prevalent amongst homosexuals and drug users, the dissolute sex life in free Western society should be duly accused and at the same time, we might have something to learn, at least on sex life, from the rigid society of Communist countries.You may detect a hint of moral superiority there. He ends by retelling the story of Sodom and Gommorah and recommends everyone take the Bible as a guide for their sex lives.
Restrictions were also initially planned for foreigners, as a March 21, 1987 Korea Times article titled “Korea to expel foreigners infected by the AIDS virus” makes clear. It reported that “the anti-AIDS law [...] will allow the Justice Ministry to refuse the entry of AIDS-causing virus carriers and to order the departure of foreign residents carrying or suffering from the dreadful disease.” As a Korea Times editorial put it,
When we think of the inflow of nearly 2 million tourists annually into this country, health administrators as well as the general public are obliged to take all available precautionary steps against the highly fatal epidemic. To be noted in this regard is the fact that a considerable number of foreign tourists are regarded as “pleasure seekers.”The “pleasure seekers” described above would likely have referred to ‘kisaeng tours’ by Japanese tourists. The AIDS panic had other consequences, in regard to foreigners, as a March 12, 1987 article titled "Itaewon Suffers from Slack Business Due to AIDS Scare" describes it:
This is coupled by the stationing of some 40,000 American troops here, calling upon the health administration to regard anti-AIDS steps no longer as the “fire on the other side of the river.”
Entertainment facilities in Itaewon frequented by foreigners as well as Korean people are suffering from a decline in business, apparently affected by the AIDS-related death of a 62-year-old man recently.
According to sources yesterday, “gay” bars and facilities exclusively for foreign clientele are on the edge of closing down with business shrinking to almost half.
The phenomena is mainly attributable to the fact that Koreans believe that the fatal disease may be transmitted by foreigners and avoid spending their leisure time there.
The so-called AIDS-phobia not only affects the business of entertainment facilities such as hostess bars or discotheques in the area, but also of restaurants and clothes shops, it is reported.
In the case of ‘D’ club where some 100 people used to throng in a bustle, some 50 people on the average visit the place to dance and drinking. Garment shops and restaurants are suffering a 30 to 40 percent decrease in sales.
The health authorities have made transvestites submit to blood tests for AIDS, but no one has been found positive in the tests.The AIDS Prevention Act was eventually passed in November 1987, but no mention was made of foreigners in it. For one reason, the expulsion of infected foreigners would have most likely targeted USFK members, but they were both protected by SOFA (and out of reach of Korean law) and also tested before arriving in Korea. Those who tested positive in the US were not allowed to deploy overseas, and those who tested positive in Korea were sent home anyway. As well, anyone found to have caught an STD was also tested for HIV afterward every three months.
The Act - as it was originally passed - also lacked any means to prevent foreigners suspected of being HIV positive from entering the country. In the lead up to the Olympic games it was clear that the government had public health concerns about the impending influx of foreigners and was vacillating on whether to stand with the emerging position of the international community - the WHO had decided that HIV screening of tourists served little health benefit - or to seek mandatory HIV screenings for the foreign Olympic visitors.
In May 1987, at the fortieth World Health Assembly in Geneva, Korea's health and social affairs minister Rhee Hai-won told member nations that “in some countries of the world, foreign AIDS carriers or patients are the main factors behind the spread of AIDS”; Rhee urged the WHO to adopt “strong measures” and stressed that “[t]he only way to prevent foreign AIDS carriers from spreading the disease is to examine overseas travelers before they leave their countries, especially those nations with a large number of AIDS patients”. Rhee proposed that overseas travelers therefore be required to carry HIV/AIDS-free health certificates. Rhee’s proposal, however, was not accepted and member nations instead adopted a resolution “[r]eiterating that information and education on the modes of transmission [...] are still the only measures available that can limit the further spread of AIDS” and endorsed the WHO’s “global strategy for the prevention and control of AIDS,” which did not include mandatory screenings for international travelers.
On July 16, 1987, the Korea Times published an article reminding readers that Rhee had pushed the WHO to “screen international travellers for the containment of the disease” earlier that year in Geneva and reported that he would again push for international screenings at a regional WHO meeting of health ministers in Australia later that month. This would never happen, however. The day before, in an article titled "AIDS certificates compulsory for Olympics tourists," the Joongang Ilbo printed a statement from Rhee, who said, “there will be some 300,000 tourists from all over the world coming to stay in our country for three months, but as there are no measures in place to prevent AIDS infection, there are concerns that after the Olympics a domestic outbreak of AIDS will occur.” To combat this, AIDS certificates would be made compulsory for Olympics tourists coming to Korea.
Obviously, what no one expected was that Reuters and other news services would pick up on this story meant only for Korean eyes and translate the key sections. By the end of the day, there were headlines around the world such as "Olympics tourists must carry AIDS-free bill." Seeing that this wasn't particularly popular, the Korean government quickly backed down, as a Miami News article the next day makes clear:
That's kind of hilarious that comments made in a Joongang Ilbo interview with the health minister are 'groundless.' At any rate, after this the ROK made no demands for screenings at the WHO sponsored meeting in Australia.
Still, there were fears that the estimated 250,000 foreign tourists who would come during the Olympic games would spread AIDS among an estimated “one million” South Korean sex-workers (and as Mike Breen pointed out in the July 26, 1988 Guardian article "Olympics Fuel a Dream More Potent the Fear of AIDS," some prostitutes were hoping to strike it rich during the Olympics). With mandatory screenings for Olympic visitors out of reach, the government focused its efforts on discouraging sex between Koreans and foreigners. A special police force was to be set up to stand guard at tourist hotels throughout the city in order to prevent foreign guests from entering with Korean sex workers, and even pornographic magazines were removed from hotel bookstores. Olympic hostesses acting as interpreters and assistants for foreign delegates were warned not to have sex with them or risk contracting AIDS. On the eve of the Olympics, the city of Seoul distributed pamphlets to “all households in the city” which stated that "It's a horrible disease that cannot be stopped by any method except preventative measures," warned citizens to take every precaution against it, mentioned that the first diagnosed AIDS case in Korea was an American, and stressed the high number of AIDS cases overseas. Condoms were distributed in the Olympic Village, and plans were also made to offer free HIV tests to tourists at Kimpo Airport. As well, as this article notes,
One of the first things a visitor to the Olympics sees even before going through customs is this eye-catching pamphlet: "AIDS... Information for Travelers." Published by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, it urges the projected 240,000 Olympic visitors to avoid "sex with male or female prostitutes or casual acquaintances you may meet."With this, the government had done all it could, but this wasn't enough for anti-American and feminist activists and national assembly representatives with similar opinions. In April 1988, the Donga Ilbo reported on a coalition of feminist groups who were opposed to Kisaeng tourism and feared that AIDS would be spread to Korean prostitutes, and even held a panel and put on a play depicting, it would appear, a foreigner attacking a prostitute:
In July of 1988, Park Young-sook, vice president of the Party for Peace and Democracy (Kim Dae-jung's party), spoke out against AIDS in the national assembly, saying "The government should block the spread of AIDS in Korea at its root by implementing HIV tests for the primary spreaders of AIDS, foreigners and US soldiers, regardless of rank."
It was later reported that Rep. Park Sil, also of the Party for Peace and Democracy, had also 'called for mandatory testing of all foreigners coming for the Olympics. "There's no guarantee they won't bring this deadly disease," he said.'
On August 3, the Donga Ilbo reported, in an article titled "Foreigners also should receive AIDS tests," that numerous groups including peace, student, health, church and women's groups had issued a joint declaration criticizing the AIDS Prevention Act, stating that foreigners and US soldiers were the sources of the first wave of infection, followed by foreign sailors and Korean prostitutes, and that it was foreigners who should be tested. On August 28, the Korea Times reported further on this coalition and its demands:
Ten civil organizations held a joint anti-AIDS conference [ a "Citizens forum to expel AIDS"] at Choongang University in Seoul Sept. 3, 1988. The rally-style conference sharply criticized the government for not enacting a law requiring mandatory HIV antibody tests on foreigners who they said bring the unwanted disease into the country. [...] As a guest speaker, Park Young-sook, vice president of the Party for Peace and Democracy, promised to propose a bill which would impose mandatory AIDS tests on foreigners.The Donga Ilbo reported on this conference on September 5 in an article titled "Fear of AIDS during the Olympics," the headline of which looked like this:
The article begins by saying that organizations had met to bring up the problem of foreign tourists coming to Korea during the Olympics and infecting prostitutes with AIDS due to sex tourism. It notes that since 1981, 100,000 Americans had caught AIDS, and in Korea 27 had caught it, of whom 4 had died. Unlike in foreign countries, where homosexuals and drug addicts had caught it, in Korea it was ‘pleasure women’ serving US soldiers or Korean sailors who had gone abroad who had caught it.
At the “Citizens Panel to Expel AIDS” vice president of the Party for Peace and Democracy, Rep. Park Young-sook, said, "The current AIDS Prevention Act has revealed the fiction of the government's [policies regarding] citizens' health, [which are] 'anti-life,'" and announced plans to prepare a revision [of the Act] which would mandate health checks for foreigners.
In the end, the Panel decided that a letter should be sent to the Combined Forces Command demanding that US soldiers be tested every three months, that the results should be made public, and that those who test positive should be repatriated to the US. It also decided that a letter should be sent to the Health and Social Welfare Minister asking that a clause be inserted into the AIDS Prevention Act mandating testing for foreigners.
It also included this photo from the conference:
Now, is it just me, or next to the Korean flag is that a home-made American flag with 'AIDS' scrawled beneath it?
Other articles would take up this fear of AIDS and the lack of testing, such as the Hankyoreh on September 2 ("The 'defenseless before AIDS' Olympics"), the Joongang Ilbo on September 8 ("Our country is indeed a zone defenseless before AIDS "), and the Joongang Ilbo again on September 10 ("The highs and lows of a festive atmosphere welcoming the Olympics -' defenseless' before AIDS").
On September 11 the Korea Herald reported that 40 students had held a protest in Itaewon, which led to 8 being arrested, calling for SOFA to be repealed and criticizing two American boys - USFK civilians - who had kicked a pregnant Korean woman (mentioned in a Kyunghyang Sinmun editorial titled 'Ugly American', it was an event that did not put certain members of the public in the best of moods towards Americans).
As a September 28 Korea Herald article put it,
Students would continue to carry out anti American protests, such as one reported by AFP and printed in the Korea Herald on September 17:
Female AIDS protesters hauled away from in front of US baseAP would report September 17 on the opening of the Olympics, and in an article titled "Students burn US flag, Reagan effigy over games," reported on the actions of university students opposed to the 'dictator's Olympics':
Police hauled away about 20 demonstrators, mostly young women, when they tried to hold a protest in front of the US army base here Thursday [September 15] alleging that American soldiers were responsible for the spread of AIDS in South Korea.
The Police pounced moments after the demonstrators appeared in front of the main gate of the US forces in Korea headquarters, grabbing their single banner and dragging them to a waiting bus.
Some of the young women screamed and tried to flee but were chased by plain clothes men, who carried them struggling to the bus.
A US Army spokesman said all their 43,000 soldiers in south Korea had been tested for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) before leaving the United States and were tested again at regular intervals.
Any soldiers testing positive for the deadly virus were immediately sent back to the United States, he said.
About 300 protesters marched out of Kookmin University in the north of Seoul to fight riot police after burning effigies of Reagon and President Roh Tae-woo and a US flag.Such protests would only intensify after it was discovered that Hustler magazine had printed an article entitled “Hustler’s Olympic-goer’s guide to Korean sex”. That is a story for another day, however. Hopefully this look at events related to AIDS leading up to the Olympics should make clear that not everyone was looking forward to the large numbers of foreigners who would be descending upon Korea, and were afraid of the contamination they might bring. Such fears had long existed, and AIDS became the perfect metaphor for foreign moral, sexual, and cultural contamination.
Riot police watched from a distance but did not intervene as protesters repeatedly blocked traffic.
An elderly man tried to attack the protesters. “Go home. You are shaming our nation!” he yelled.[…]
About 500 students took part in a similar protest at Seoul National University in the south of the capital. They marched to the gate and burned an effigy of Roh as riot police watched but did not intervene.
A small protest was held at Yonsei university with less than 100 students taking part. Students distributed leaflets claiming foreigners at the Olympics would spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
“Oppose Olympics which oppose Korean peoples’ health with AIDS,” the leaflets said.
[Note: This post uses excerpts from the article "HIV/AIDS tests as a proxy for racial discrimination? A preliminary investigation of South Korea’s policy of mandatory in-country HIV/AIDS tests for its foreign English teachers" by Benjamin Wagner and myself.]