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Off-Base Behavior in Korea

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Directly across from the U.S. Army base known as Camp Casey is a warren of tiny streets lined with shops and nightclubs. The shops sell everything from sleeping bags to telephone calling cards to sequined bikinis. The nightclubs sell titillation, at the very least.

With names like America, Vegas, Seattle, New York and USA, the clubs are geared to lonely and homesick GIs out for a night on the town. Many have signs outside saying they’re for foreigners only--meaning no Koreans--and some won’t admit anyone without a U.S. military ID.

This is the after-hours playground for troops stationed just 12 miles from the demilitarized zone that borders Communist North Korea. The United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea, on a mission that is most frequently described as defending democracy.

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But life is anything but democratic for the women--mostly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union--who work in the nightclubs.

Cherilyn Dela Pena Mallari found out just how undemocratic the clubs are after she was recruited from the Philippines to work in the Double Deuce.

In a diary being used in a civil lawsuit about to be filed by Mallari and 10 other Filipinas against the Double Deuce management, the 22-year-old wrote about how she and the others were locked in their rooms above the nightclub, their passports and travel documents taken away. They weren’t permitted to make phone calls. They were threatened with a knife. They didn’t get a regular day off. They were given less than $10 a week for food, leaving them with nothing to eat but rice, noodles and an occasional can of Spam.

Mallari knew that her job as hostess would require her to chat with soldiers and wear shorter skirts than she might otherwise choose, but she had been assured that she wouldn’t have to go any further.

Then reality intruded.

“My Gosh! It really appears that our job here will be prostitute. That’s why we are all very afraid,” Mallari wrote April 3, the day she arrived in Tongduchon.

Then on April 8: “We received a scolding from our boss because he said we were not entertaining customers. According to him, we should let our customers touch us a bit.”

And on April 17: “I’ll do anything to get out of this hell, just so that they don’t molest me.... This is the biggest mistake of my life.”

Pressured by the Philippine Embassy in Seoul, South Korean police busted the nightclub June 17. Eleven women were sent home to the Philippines. The youngest was 16. The nightclub’s South Korean manager, Park Byoung Young, was convicted of assault and served two months in prison.

Although no charges have been filed against Americans, the case and others like it raise tough questions for the military. The clubs are owned by Koreans, and the recruiters are usually Koreans, or sometimes Filipinos and Russians. The customers are primarily Americans. By merely allowing soldiers to patronize such clubs, some say, the U.S. military is condoning not only prostitution but, perhaps more seriously, the trafficking of women and minors.

“These clubs understand the law of the market. If the soldiers didn’t go to clubs with these kinds of practices, it would contribute to the eradication of trafficking,” said Reydelus Conferido, the labor attache at the Philippine Embassy.

In the wake of news reports on the women’s treatment, U.S. commanders in South Korea say they are beginning to educate themselves and their soldiers.

“From a personal standpoint, I find this morally repugnant. From a policy perspective, we have taken a clear stand that these are not circumstances that are condoned, supported, encouraged or would allow our soldiers to participate in,” said Maj. Gen. James Soligan, the deputy chief of staff for U.S. forces in South Korea.

From a practical standpoint, however, Soligan says he is unsure what to do beyond keeping soldiers confined to base or barring them from clubs with Russian or Philippine hostesses.

As an interim measure, Soligan has ordered all commanders to talk to their soldiers about trafficking. The military also is considering placing some clubs off-limits if they are found to be violating human rights.

The issue has piqued the interest of Congress. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, says conditions in the nightclubs make a mockery of any claim of defending democracy.

“We have to practice what we preach,” said Smith, who was a driving force behind the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, designed to put the United States solidly against the growing international trade in women. “We have to make sure that Americans are not complicit in the trafficking of women and hopefully stand on the other side of the equation.”

Last month, U.S. Army Secretary Thomas E. White asked the service’s inspector general to open an investigation into the trafficking of women near all Army bases, including those in South Korea.

Until very recently, there was little awareness in the U.S. military about trafficking.

“In fairness to the military, every soldier knows what prostitution is, but trafficking is something they did not understand,” said Katharine Moon, a political scientist at Wellesley College who has written extensively on the subject.

In fact, the term “trafficking” is a source of some confusion. The most commonly accepted definition comes from a U.N. protocol adopted last year that describes it as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability

Even if they don’t know the legal definition of trafficking, many GIs have noticed that something is amiss in the nightclubs.

“You know something is wrong when the girls are asking you to buy them bread,” said Chris Hollis, 27, of Ohio, who is stationed at Camp Casey. “They can’t leave the clubs. They barely feed them.”

Several soldiers remarked that the new arrivals look healthy. But after a few months, their skin takes on a strange pallor and flabbiness as a result of rarely being allowed outdoors.

“The whole thing is wrong,” said John Osmun, 28, from Indiana, also based at Camp Casey. “There are only Americans in these clubs. If they’re bringing these women over here to work for us, they should get paid a fair wage. They should have the right to a day off like in America.”

About 6,500 foreign women work in nightclubs in South Korea. Around dusk, when the neon lights are switched on to illuminate the clubs, the women appear in short, tight skirts in the doorways, beckoning men to come in. Exactly what happens inside varies from club to club and town to town, and depends on how closely South Korean or U.S. military police are patrolling at a given moment.

Inside the USA club--which promotes its Americana theme with a logo of the Statue of Liberty--the lights are dim and the music loud. A couple of soldiers in civilian attire hunch over beers at the bar, chatting casually with a Russian woman. But there appears to be more intimacy at a private banquet tucked in a dark corner.

The scene is raunchier in the town of Songtan, where the U.S. Air Force’s Osan Air Base is located. At the Playboy Club outside the base, a Philippine dancer in a black bikini writhes around a floor-to-ceiling pole on the stage. Video monitors replicate her image around the room. Under a bank of monitors, a Filipina wearing just a thong and bra straddles the lap of a soldier who is fondling her buttocks, while his buddies drink beer and laugh.

Although prostitution is against South Korean law and patronizing prostitutes is prohibited by U.S. military regulation, the brothels near the bases have long been an open secret.

Patronizing a prostitute can lead to discharge from the military. But unless a service member is caught in the act--and caught paying for it--it is impossible to bring charges against him. Moreover, prostitution near the military bases is disguised by an elaborate system of euphemism.

The women working in the clubs often hold the title of “guest relations officers” but are more popularly called “juicy girls.” If a GI wants to chat with a woman, he is expected to buy her a drink--usually a tiny glass of juice--that can cost between $8 and $20. Depending on the bar, the glass of juice might mean some idle chitchat or perhaps serious groping.

If the customer wants more privacy with the woman, he can buy a table in what is called a VIP room--a quiet, dark booth in the back or a small room upstairs. If he wants to spend more time alone with the woman, he usually has to pay the nightclub what is called a “bar fine,” which allows him to take her out overnight.

While the system disguises the obvious, it also puts the women in a situation where it is difficult to say no. Their salaries are low--usually less than $300 per month--and when they arrive here, they usually have to pay off a debt of more than $1,000 for air fare, visa and employment agency fees. Without earning commissions on the juices or on going out for “bar fines,” they have no way to break even.

“If you don’t allow yourself ‘to be used,’ you will not have money,” Cherilyn Mallari wrote in her diary.

People familiar with the industry say psychological pressure plays an even bigger role than locked doors in keeping women at the clubs. Conferido, the attache at the Philippine Embassy, says many people, including police, “do not believe that women can be pushed into prostitution without physical force. I try to explain to them that if you take somebody far from home, under certain condition, you can get them to do whatever you want.... It could happen to anybody.”

“There are some nasty clubs where women are locked in, but mostly women don’t leave because they are scared,” said Veronica, a 24-year-old from the outskirts of the Russian city of Vladivostok who once worked in Tongduchon.

A nightclub owner in Songtan, who asked not to identified, said: “Some of the women are locked up. If a fire breaks out, they can’t escape. But the main method of coercing them is psychological. They know no one. They have no money. The only way they can get money is by prostituting themselves.”

Paula, 32, who like most women asked that her family name not be published, was recruited with a group of her friends in 1999 in the Philippine city of Angeles.

“There was this lady we knew. She said, ‘Hey, you want to go to Korea and work as a waitress?’ I had been before working in Malaysia. That’s a Muslim country, and you didn’t have to do that sort of thing,” Paula said. “I’d heard stories about Korea, but this lady said, ‘No. It’s just waitressing.’ We were all from poor families, so we said yes.”

Denise, 22, who worked at the same club, concurred. “I read the contract. And it was supposed to be only waitressing. No dancing.”

The women were flown to Bangkok, Thailand, where they received South Korean visas. Once they arrived, they learned that they would have to wait a year before being paid and then get only $2,000. The bar penalized them if they didn’t meet a quota for selling drinks, and, as Paula said, “to get a guy to buy you a lousy juice, you were supposed to open his zipper.” They were also to wear sexy outfits and dance.

“I was so shocked. I had tears coming down my eyes when I danced,” Denise said. “I was a virgin. I was totally innocent.”

Paula eventually escaped from the club with the help of an American boyfriend, a soldier, who gave the club $3,000 to pay off her debt.

Denise was less fortunate. She quickly became pregnant, she said, by an American soldier whom she was seeing regularly. She went back to the Philippines to have the baby but then needed money to support him. So she returned to Songtan to work again in the nightclubs. But she found that she couldn’t stomach the work, so she ran away. She now works illegally in a factory preparing kimchi, the ubiquitous Korean delicacy, making $500 a month. She sends the money back to the Philippines to support her child, who lives with her parents.

“It’s hard work, but it’s honest work, and they pay overtime,” Denise said of the kimchi factory.

Regulations in South Korean make it extremely difficult for foreign women to work in factories but quite easy to work in nightclubs. They are allowed in the country under what is known as an “entertainment visa,” another euphemism.

Until the mid-1990s, most women in the sex industry here were Korean. But the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Philippine economy made foreign women readily available. At the same time, the booming South Korean economy was making jobs near the bases less desirable than they’d been in the hardscrabble days after the Korean War.

“The Korean girls didn’t want to work here anymore. The GIs aren’t rich. The girls could get better tips working in clubs for Korean customers,” said Kim Kyoung Su, a Tongduchon club owner and president of the Korean Special Tourism Assn., a trade organization for clubs near the U.S. bases.

In 1996, the group began lobbying the government for the right to bring in foreign women to work in the nightclubs. Kim says it was essential to prevent GIs from harassing Korean women and straining the important military alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.

“If it hadn’t been for us, there would be sexual violations, maybe rapes. We are contributing to United States and Korean relations in our own way, and nobody appreciates that,” Kim said.

Nobody in the South Korean government will publicly confirm Kim’s account. But one bureaucrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believes that many Koreans thought it better that foreign women, rather than Koreans, entertain U.S. service members.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Korean Special Tourism Assn. enjoyed favorable treatment by the South Korean government, according to political scientist Moon. Her 1997 book, “Sex Among Allies,” alleged that the South Korean government tacitly supported prostitution near the U.S. bases as a way of solidifying the military alliance and of bringing in scarce hard currency. The tourism association also enjoys the privilege of selling tax-free liquor to Americans and other foreigners in its bars.

Under regulations for entertainer visas, applicants must submit resumes and evidence of their experience in the performing arts to a quasi-governmental agency, the Korea Media Rating Board.

In 2001, the board approved applications for 6,980 entertainers, 98% of them women. The largest numbers came from the Philippines, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Moldova.

“These entertainment visas are a cover for prostitution,” charged Kim Kang Ja, a South Korean police superintendent who heads the women and juveniles division.

Lee Jong Hwa, the head of the Korea Media Rating Board, doesn’t dispute her accusation. He concedes that the board is not able to carefully check the applications, which are submitted by recruiters--or sometimes directly by the tourism association.

“It is a certainty that there are some false documents submitted. The obvious ones are rejected. But because of manpower and resources, we cannot investigate them all,” Lee said.

Whatever support the nightclubs enjoyed in the past from the South Korean government, there is now a move underway to crack down on the most egregious cases of trafficking. Bad publicity about the bars has prompted some legislators to call for a tightening of the rules for granting entertainer visas.

And although the South Koreans don’t think they can eradicate prostitution, they are now paying much closer attention to the question of human rights for women in the sex industry.

Superintendent Kim has made several recent forays into Tongduchon--not to investigate whether prostitution was taking place but to inspect the living conditions in the clubs.

On one excursion last month, she traipsed through bedrooms and opened refrigerator doors as a nightclub manager, a middle-aged woman, screamed in indignation.

“When I visited this place the last time, there were bars on the windows and nothing but old porridge in the refrigerator,” Kim said, noting with satisfaction that the clubs are cleaning up their act under increased scrutiny. “Now there is food and soda in the refrigerator. The bars are off the windows. It’s much cleaner.”

The police are distributing stickers in the nightclubs informing women of their legal rights and giving out the number of a police hotline.

The Philippine Embassy is skeptical about whether the measures will be effective. Many women are reluctant to call the police for fear that they, not the owners, will be the ones arrested.

Even in the case of the Double Deuce nightclub, police initially planned to charge Mallari and the other women with prostitution. After being dissuaded by the Philippine Embassy, the women were simply deported.

The club has since reopened under the same management but a different name. The women are now Russian, not Philippine.


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