Dr. Horace N. Allen, the first American missionary doctor in Korea, declared that "venery [was] greatly indulged in" throughout the country. He noted that the average Korean married at a very early age and plural marriages were the common rule. In addition there were concubines and a "class of ‘dancing girl' prostitutes."
His was not the only observation of Korean prostitution to appear in print; there were also accounts in English-language newspapers and diplomatic reports. In 1876, a British diplomat noted "brothels with several inmates do not exist. Of course, the social evil prevails in the Hermit Country as it does in every other country, but the women live by themselves in their own homes."
But frequenting these places came with a cost. A Japanese doctor in Busan in 1883 claimed that venereal diseases of "the most virulent type" were common amongst the prostitutes. But it didn't end just there. Patrons of these places brought the diseases home.
Gonorrhea was very common ― so common, in fact, that it had no social stigma attached to it. Allen claimed that syphilis ― known as the "Chinese disease" ― was "common and ever present" and found not only in men, women and children, but even amongst the eunuchs. It was a chief culprit in the large number of miscarriages experienced by Korean women and those pregnancies that went full-term often bore children with "ugly, notched teeth and strumous affections."
Korean doctors had several methods of dealing with these diseases including arsenic and a mixture made from mercury. One Western doctor speculated that Korean doctors did successfully treat the disease but at times went overboard with the treatment resulting in "severe salivation, ulceration of gums, loss of the teeth, and so forth." It was, according to him, "bringing a good thing into dispute and emphasizing the truth that sin is transgression or going beyond."
Many Korean sufferers went to Western doctors only after traditional Korean medicine failed. Allen reported that "victims of sexual excess" often presented themselves only to alleviate their symptoms of painful urination.
The Korean sufferers "seemed to know that their troubles were due to their own irregularities, yet they would not acknowledge that their imprudence amounted to what would be considered over-indulgence from a European standpoint."
But these diseases were not confined only to Koreans. Even though Korea opened up to the West in 1882, its places of ill-repute did not. Many Western males in the open ports of Jemulpo and Busan sought female companionship in Japanese and Chinese establishments. The Chinese establishments often bought Korean women to serve their clientele of fellow Chinese, Koreans and Western sailors and merchants. The Japanese establishments imported women from their own country and were probably more expensive than the Chinese establishments.
They tended to serve Japanese and Western businessmen and, allegedly, even members of the diplomatic corps.
Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any Western medical records describing the treatment of venereal diseases amongst Westerners in Korea but undoubtedly there were some. Hugh Dinsmore, the American minister to Korea, had to undergo emergency surgery in Jemulpo to alleviate swelling in his severely enlarged testicles. The cause for his condition is merely speculation.
When George Lake, an American merchant in Jemulpo with an unsavory past and a penchant for brothels, was found dead in his residence it was initially believed that he had died from a horrid disease of the flesh. Later, possibly due to politics, his death was ruled a murder.
And, did you know that one of the earliest Western women visitors to Jemulpo was Nellie Webster, a prostitute from Shanghai? But whether her trip to Jemulpo in 1884 was for business or pleasure is unknown.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.