RELATED STORY: Inside the bars: Drinks, conversation and …
SEOUL, South Korea — Frustrated by continuing prostitution at "juicy bars" that cater to American troops in South Korea — and what he calls "weak" monitoring by commanders — the co-chairman of the U.S. Congressional Caucus on Human Trafficking plans to introduce legislation that would create a senior position in the Department of Defense to enforce the department’s prohibitions against the exploitation of women.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said he will propose the appointment of an assistant secretary for trafficking issues because he suspects that the policing of juicy bars near U.S. military installations varies "based on the commitment of the commanding officer."
"Zero tolerance does not mean partial tolerance," Smith told Stars and Stripes. "My concern … is that the important job of monitoring trafficking-related concerns has been added to somebody’s already too-large portfolio of work. What we [want is] a hub — a command and control center" led by an assistant secretary for trafficking issues in the DOD.
Smith had suggested the assistant secretary position in 2005 as part of a larger anti-trafficking proposal, but that measure was removed before the bill became law.
"The fact that juicy bars appear to be gaming the system in Korea is a sign that the monitoring is weak," Smith said. "Juicy bars should be on their own watch list for the military, if not actually off-limits."
Juicy bars are clustered by the dozens outside U.S. military bases in South Korea. They are staffed almost exclusively by Philippine women, brought into the country by promoters on entertainer visas, often under the impression they will be working as club singers. But when promoters then subcontract the women to juicy bar owners, they discover that their primary job is to flirt with servicemembers to induce them to buy expensive juice drinks.
As a Stars and Stripes investigation last year showed, the "juicy girls" are commonly punished with "bar fines" when they fail to meet juice sales quotas, which compel them to make up the shortfall by prostituting themselves to customers.
U.S. Forces Korea currently lists about 60 establishments — many of them juicy bars — as off-limits to servicemembers because of prostitution and human-trafficking violations. There are an estimated 200 juicy bars near bases in South Korea.
Smith said he believes a blanket ban on all juicy bars "would be the most prudent thing to do to protect these women" from being abused.
"Juicy bars are inherently degrading to women and an engraved invitation for prostitution and human trafficking," Smith said. "This isn’t the USO."
But USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp insisted in an interview with Stars and Stripes last month that it would be unfair to ban servicemembers from patronizing all juicy bars.
"The bottom line is that juicy bars … have women that are there to talk to soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines," Sharp said. "You can’t presume that things go beyond that, which is what you would have to do if you want to put them [all] off-limits.
"We, I think, investigate very clearly any allegation … if you’re in an establishment where it does go beyond that," he continued. "Then, if we investigate it and find that true, then we do put them off-limits. I think that we work very hard on that, and we’ve got a good system in place for it."
Bar owners placed on USFK’s off-limits list sometimes promise U.S. commanders that they will crack down on prostitution. But once removed from the banned list, many reappear when evidence of prostitution recurs.
As Smith prepares to introduce his proposal for a high-level official to monitor compliance with anti-trafficking laws, he has also asked the State Department to include a reference to South Korean juicy bars in its upcoming 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report, according to the department’s website, is "the primary diplomatic tool through which the U.S. government encourages partnership and increased determination in the fight against forced labor, sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery."
In a letter sent this month to Ambassador-at-large Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Smith wrote that South Korea has made "tremendous strides" in combating human trafficking, but "it seems that juicy bars may be the latest loophole allowing for the victimization of women."
"Given our military presence in Korea — and the patronage of juicy bars by our armed forces — it is of utmost importance that any nexus between such establishments and trafficking be carefully monitored," his letter continued.
Although USFK has said repeatedly it won’t place all juicy bars off limits by category, such blanket bans on South Korean businesses are not without precedent. For example, USFK prohibits troops from patronizing tattoo parlors, barber shops, acupuncture clinics and body-piercing establishments.
Asked to explain the apparent contradiction, USFK issued a recent statement saying: "The ultimate decision to prohibit an activity or restrict access to a facility rests with the appropriate-level commander and is a matter of judgment, as guided by the provisions of service regulations."
‘A mere fig leaf’
Smith said South Korea’s juicy bars provide "a mere fig leaf of respectability" that often serves as cover for exploiting women.
Following last year’s Stars and Stripes report, Philippine officials announced that they had stopped approving requests from promoters seeking authorization to bring Filipinas to South Korea under contract to work in base-area establishments.
An embassy official explained that, in addition to concerns about prostitution, Philippine officials believe it is degrading that their countrywomen are brought here for a job that requires them to kiss, touch and flirt with men while soliciting drink purchases.
Filipinas already working in South Korea were not covered under the action, and embassy officials have said unscrupulous promoters are still finding illegal ways around the immigration restrictions.
Sharp said the Philippine government’s crackdown on the importing of its women was not a sign that USFK should be doing anything more about the issue.
"My understanding is that the Philippine government is trying to protect [its] women from prostitution and human trafficking," he said. "And so, I think that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, too, by the way that we investigate any allegation that that’s happening."
But in recent interviews, CdeBaca and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, joined Smith in expressing concern.
Importing women to work at any job "with sexual overtones … almost always leads to prostitution," said Cardin, whose agency promotes human rights in 56 countries around the world, including South Korea.
Putting off-limits only those juicy bars that are caught in the act of promoting prostitution "is drawing too fine a line," Cardin said. "You’re asking too much to have the direct smoking gun."
CdeBaca said juicy bars are the kinds of establishments where human trafficking "easily takes root" and where there are "often opportunities for exploitation."
Yi Hun-Hui, president of the Korea Foreigner Tourist Association, said he is trying to clean up the image of the 200 juicy bars he represents across the peninsula — bars that receive tax-free liquor in exchange for catering primarily to foreigners.
But Yi concedes that he is having a hard time keeping prostitution in check because he said Filipina employees make sex-for-cash deals directly with servicemembers and without the knowledge of the bar owners.
He agreed with estimates from bar owners that the pool of Filipinas now working at South Korean juicy bars has decreased as much as 40 percent due to the Philippine crackdown on work permits.
If the pool of Filipinas continues to dry up, Yi said, bar owners and promoters will soon have to "change the source of their manpower" and bring in women from other countries to make up the difference.
"One thing is for certain," Yi said. "U.S. servicemembers will not be happy to go to the bars without these women."
Katharine Moon, author of "Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations," said in a telephone interview that the U.S. military has reasons to not be overly aggressive in issuing off-limits orders — including not wanting to upset juicy bar owners and other "camp-town" businesses, and not wanting to leave servicemembers without "outlets to socialize."
"I would advocate putting [juicy bars] off-limits for good," said Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
"But the political will has not been there," she said. "It is part of the scenery. This is something military people have done for a long time. The legacy has been permissive."
Stars and Stripes reporters Ashley Rowland and Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.