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Off-Base Behavior in Korea

By allowing GIs to patronize certain clubs, the U.S. military is seen as condoning the trafficking of foreign women for prostitution.

September 26, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TONGDUCHON, South Korea — 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.

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.

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