SEOUL — An Itaewon brothel that was burned down by a U.S. soldier is being replaced by a seven-story hotel that the owner vows will “never, ever” be used for prostitution despite its location in the heart of a narrow street known as Hooker Hill.
“My hotel is just a place for simple sleeping, and the location is excellent,” said Yang Kwanyoung, adding that customers will have quick access to public transportation, popular shopping areas and palaces.
Pfc. Marcos Pedraza-Pascual was given a one-year suspended sentence for a conviction of gross negligence for the Nov. 15, 2011, blaze that started in the Tiger Tavern and caused about $71,000 in damage to three buildings on Hooker Hill, where a number of businesses remain off-limits to U.S. troops because of suspected prostitution and human trafficking.
The soldier testified he was drunk and accidentally knocked over a candle, setting a mattress on fire. Seoul Central District Court judges said they believed he had not started the blaze intentionally.
“When you drink too much, that’s what happens,” Pedraza-Pascual said after his sentence — which essentially put him on probation — was announced. The Tiger Tavern was off-limits to U.S. servicemembers at the time of the fire.
The fire attracted widespread attention in South Korea, and came about one month after USFK commander Gen. James Thurman placed the military under an nighttime off-post curfew following two highly publicized rapes of South Korean teenagers by U.S. troops.
Yang described the new building as a “super-mini business hotel” that will have 70 inexpensive rooms, each 5.8 pyong, or 206.4 square feet. He said the facility will likely open in April, and he expects to serve a range of customers, including South Korean businessmen, U.S. servicemembers and particularly foreign tourists.
“Many tourists are coming to Korea now, but there are not enough hotel rooms to meet their demand,” he said.
Itaewon, located next to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, developed as an area catering to U.S. soldiers and has been designated a “Special Tourist Zone” by the government. The once-seedy area used to be known for its brothels and dive bars and was shunned by South Koreans who viewed it as dangerous.
Today, while pockets of sex businesses remain, the area has gentrified. On weekends, it is packed with both foreigners and South Koreans visiting its trendy stores and upscale bars and restaurants.
“Itaewon is one of the major tourist sightseeing spots like Japan’s Roppongi or Manhattan in the U.S., isn’t it?” Yang said.
An official with the Yongsan district’s Department of Construction said three floors of Yang’s building are designated for “neighborhood facilities,” a broad category that can include offices, stores, restaurants and bars. However, he said Yang has not submitted detailed plans for what facilities will be included in the building.