SEOUL — A year after protests by bar owners brought the popular Songtan entertainment area outside Osan Air Base to a near-standstill, the 7th Air Force says its efforts to put "juicy bars" off-limits to U.S. servicemembers have helped dramatically lower the clusters of establishments thought to be involved with prostitution and human trafficking.
However, keeping the so-called juicy bars in check requires constant vigilance. For instance, although the number of juicy bars outside Osan Air Base has dropped precipitously in the wake of the 7AF’s crackdown on the bars — from a few dozen last year to nine in May — the number of establishments off-limits for suspected human trafficking has held steady at nine since August 2013. One bar was dropped from that list in December, while another was added in April.
Outside Kunsan Air Base, the number of juicy bars has dropped from eight a year ago to five today. Four of those bars are currently off-limits, and the 8th Fighter Wing is in the process of placing the fifth bar off-limits after it was recently found to be “participating in the selling of companionship,” according to 7AF.
The difference in atmosphere is obvious outside Osan, where juicy bars numbered 44 about a year and a half ago.
“The whole tone outside the (Osan) gate has changed,” 7th Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas said. “I’ve had many airmen that have just come out and said that in conversation. A lot of them didn’t like going outside the gate because of the seediness of the environment, and now that’s been turned around.”
Recent visits to the Songtan juicy bar district showed that the area has, at least on the surface, noticeably changed. Most of the scantily clad women who used to be seen smoking and waiting for male customers have disappeared, though two female employees in separate bars approached a reporter and asked him to buy them drinks.
The shuttering of the establishments follows a years-long international effort to link the sale of “juice” — highly priced non-alcoholic drinks that servicemembers buy in exchange for a few minutes of conversation with young girls in revealing outfits — to human trafficking.
In 2009, Stars and Stripes first reported that prostitution and indentured servitude were everyday realities at many of these popular hangouts for American soldiers. Bar girls were often enticed from the Philippines to work in the South Korean bars with false promises that they could earn legitimate incomes as singers and entertainers.
The issue received international attention again in December 2013, when CNN aired a report about the link between U.S. servicemembers and South Korean juicy bars as part of a series on modern-day slavery.
Now, the South Korean government says it is beginning its own crackdown on human trafficking through inspections of businesses that employ foreigner entertainers, and has inspected bars near at least three U.S. military installations.
Last October, South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family met with representatives from the U.S. and Philippine embassies, Osan officials and military police to discuss “protection measures” for women working on entertainer visas outside USFK installations.
Afterward, the ministry announced that it would increase its oversight of businesses that hire foreign entertainers through checks that include site visits, interviews with workers and business owners and documentation reviews. Four ministries, including the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Employment and Labor, are taking part in the inspections.
Almost 4,900 foreigners were living in South Korea on entertainer visas as of July 2013. Of those, almost 85 percent were working at tourist or foreigner-only venues, according to the ministry.
South Korea has 265 businesses designated as entertainment venues for foreigners, though it was unclear how many of those are juicy bars that cater solely to the U.S. military community. All of those venues will be subject to inspections, though Hong Hyeonjoo, a MOGEF official, said the government does not have the authority to inspect those that are not registered and may be operating illegally.
Inspections officially began in March with checks of 16 establishments in Dongducheon, some of them near Camp Casey. An undisclosed number of establishments near Kunsan Air Base were inspected in April, ministry officials said.
The ministry said it will not release the results of inspections conducted this year until December 2014 or January 2015, in part because the government thinks releasing the results would tip off businesses that have yet to be checked about what inspectors are looking for, a MOGEF official said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The official said businesses could then make temporary fixes in order to pass the checks, including telling their employees what to say during the inspections.
“In that case, accurate inspections could not be done,” he said.
However, details that have been announced about the checks raise doubts about whether they present an accurate picture of what really happens inside the inspected establishments.
Businesses will be notified before the checks take place. And, inspections will take place during the day, not during the prime nighttime operating hours for juicy bars.
Hong said government employees typically do not work at night, and they do not want to disrupt work at any establishments, where owners fear the inspections will harm their business.
“We are not trying to find them doing illegal acts through sudden spot checks,” Hong said.
He said owners need time to prepare documentation for inspections about employee pay.
“We believe that those business owners are going to fully cooperate with us because we are trying to protect foreign women workers’ human rights,” he said.
Interviews will be conducted with female workers outside the presence of their employers, he said. However, he acknowledged that the women might be coached by their bosses to lie to inspectors and conceded that “maybe we should think about that part more carefully.”
The ministry conducted initial checks of eight bars near Osan in December but found no evidence of human rights violations, Hong said. The inspections included interviews with 51 Filipina employees, most in their 20s or early 30s. An association representing the bars had been notified in advance that the inspections would take place.
U.S. Forces Korea has for years employed a “zero tolerance policy” toward prostitution and human trafficking and has said unequivocally that “buying overpriced drinks in a juicy bar supports the human trafficking industry, a form of modern-day slavery.”
Yet USFK continued to allow servicemembers to patronize the juicy bars outside its bases with the exception of businesses caught promoting prostitution or human trafficking.
Col. Michael Strunk, 51st Fighter Wing Mission Support Group commander at Osan, said officials had a “gut feeling” that illegal activity was taking place. But establishing the link to human trafficking and proving that the female hostesses were working against their wills was almost impossible.
“We knew certain things were going on, but we didn’t have the proof necessarily,” he said.
Putting all the bars off limits to servicemembers was not the answer. In 2010, then-USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp said it would be unfair to punish all juicy bar owners for the actions of a few.
“The bottom line is that juicy bars have women that are there to talk to soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines,” he 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.”
Still, business owners resented any efforts to place suspected juicy bars off-limits or force them to change the nature of their operations. Last summer, when the 7AF put a number of bars outside Osan off-limits, owners staged protests for three weeks, saying the military was trying to shut them down. They abandoned the demonstrations after Osan placed all 500 businesses in the Songtan area off-limits because of fears of confrontations between servicemembers and protesters.
Strunk said Air Force officials, working with various arms of the South Korean, U.S. and Philippine governments, have determined that juicy bar promoters were bringing the women into the country illegally on E-6 entertainer visas. While the Philippine government had denied most of those visa applications, the promoters were skirting the law by sending the women to other countries before they went on to South Korea.
7AF officials said the Korean government was crucial in pushing the juicy bars to close.
“There’s only so much we can do as far as our folks being down there and seeing things,” said Strunk, who received a commendation from the ministry last fall for his efforts at stopping prostitution and human trafficking. “When it actually crosses the line and we no longer have authority, like checking on immigration status, that’s where the Korean government becomes very important, and they’ve been very supporting in continuing partnering with us and working those issues.”
Some of the businesses have reopened as dance clubs and sports bars, and the military continues to monitor them through patrols and feedback from airmen.
“To a certain degree, I think a lot of them thought that we would scale back” on monitoring, he said, “but we haven’t at all.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Armando R. Limon contributed to this report.