DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — A sharp drop in the number of Philippine women available to work in tawdry “juicy bars” in South Korea that are widely associated with human trafficking and prostitution is forcing bar owners to rethink how they should operate.
A crackdown by the Philippine government on South Korea's importing of bar girls has led to a 50 to 60 percent drop in the number of women working as hostesses at the 200-plus bars near U.S. military bases, according to Yi Hun-hui, president of the Korea Foreigner Tourist Association, whose organization represents the owners of most of those bars.
“The past few months have been hard,” Yi said. “We hope the younger generation [of bar owners] can bring us out of the current situation as we progress into new towns. As of now, we are in what you could call a time of reflection.”
Yi said his organization is focused on remaking the juicy bars — where Filipinas work as hostesses to entice American servicemembers to buy them expensive juice drinks — into more upscale and diverse establishments.
“I’d like to change the [focus] of our clubs and bars, so that the businesses are not solely based on these working women,” he said. “Maybe like Itaewon (near Yongsan Garrison) … where there is a mix of restaurants and bars. Times are changing and so are the needs of our customers, and I’m hoping that with these new bars … we’ll be able to get out of this unpleasant spotlight.”
The decline in bar workers has occurred since a Stars and Stripes investigation a year ago detailed how prostitution and human trafficking were flourishing in the juicy bars that cluster by the dozens in seedy base-area entertainment districts.
Since that report, Philippine government officials announced they were no longer approving contracts that promoters secure to bring in women to work the bars. Philippine officials said they were upset not only about the prostitution but also about the fact that the Filipinas are brought to South Korea for the express purpose of touching, kissing and otherwise flirting with servicemembers.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Human Trafficking, reintroduced a bill earlier this year that would create a director of global anti-human trafficking policies in the Department of Defense. In doing so, Smith said he was frustrated by continuing prostitution at juicy bars in South Korea and what he called “weak” monitoring of the establishments by American commanders.
The U.S. State Department, in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, also referenced the plight of women who work at the juicy bars near U.S. military facilities as one of its ongoing human trafficking concerns in South Korea.
The clubs are primarily staffed by Philippine women who are imported to flirt with servicemembers. “Juicy girls” who fall short of juice-sale quotas are sometimes forced by bar owners to prostitute themselves to make up the revenue difference. In addition, some of the juicy girls arrange to meet customers outside of work, where they strike sex-for-cash deals on the side or pose as girlfriends and then hit the men up for money purportedly to send home or pay off debts.
Yi said Stars and Stripes’ continuing coverage of juicy bars over the past year had opened his eyes to problems at his member clubs — and others outside of his organization.
“I have checked into those problems and am trying to deal with them,” he said. “Wanting these areas to become more like Hongdae (an entertainment district in Seoul known for its upscale establishments) and Itaewon is a long-term vision. A shorter-term goal … is to clean up all our bars so that Filipinas can work again as hostesses without having to worry about such issues.”
Where the girls aren’t
Changes in areas around bases where juicy bars abound are becoming noticeable.
Recent visits to America Town near Kunsan Air Base, the Shinjang Mall commercial district outside Osan Air Base and The Ville just outside the front gate of Camp Casey found scantily clad Philippine women still hovering in juicy bar doorways trying to lure passing servicemembers into their establishments.
But the number of women working at the juicy bars appeared to be down significantly this month in The Ville compared with a year ago. And, in America Town, a servicemember was overheard a few months ago telling another how he had never seen so few juicy girls on duty there on a weekend night.
Hard numbers support those observations. During the first six months of this year, the Philippine Embassy in South Korea approved 164 individual contracts for Philippine citizens coming here to work as entertainers. During the first half of last year, before the embassy stopped approving contracts for work at clubs near U.S. military bases, 430 individual contracts were approved.
Six Filipina “entertainers” filed complaints with the embassy that they were the victims of human trafficking from January through June of this year, compared with 37 who filed similar complaints during the first half of last year.
“I do hope that these indicate an overall trend of diminishing instances of human trafficking,” said Felicitas Q. Bay, labor attaché for the Philippine Embassy in Seoul. “Over the past few months, the Philippine Embassy has intensified its efforts to address human trafficking … [but] it is not the problem of a single country.”
Bay said that in addition to not approving contracts permitting Filipinas to work at base-area juicy bars, her office conducts random, undercover checks of other places interested in hiring them to work as entertainers.
“If the entertainers are asked to do more than sing or perform in a band — by requiring them to dress provocatively and sell juice — [the establishments] are included on our lookout list, their documents will not be processed by the labor office and they will not be able to hire from the Philippines,” she said.
A breach to fix
Yet Filipinas can still find their way to the juicy bars of South Korea due to a breach in the system.
Bay explained that before departing the Philippines, citizens leaving to work in another country must show airport officials an overseas employment certificate that indicates that a work contract has been reviewed and approved by the appropriate Philippine agency.
However, she said, Filipinas can get an E-6 entertainer’s visa from South Korea without an overseas employment certificate. And due to unscrupulous or inattentive Philippine officials, some are being allowed to leave with only the visa — and without the employment certificate.
“The [entertainer] is then received by the Korean promoter or club owner upon arrival in South Korea,” Bay said. “They most likely become juicy girls or [are] forced into prostitution. This, in my opinion, is clear human trafficking.”
Bay said embassy officials have taken a number of steps to address the shortcoming, including tightening Philippine airport security procedures and asking South Korean officials not to issue entertainer’s visas to Filipinas unless they have employment certificates.
South Korean officials have said they grant entertainer visas only to foreigners after a lengthy review process, during which videos of applicants singing are reviewed and approved.
Bay said her government also is sharing information with U.S. military officials about “clubs and owners of ill repute.”
U.S. Forces Korea officials have declined to place all juicy bars off-limits to servicemembers, but have said they are doing everything possible to monitor the juicy bars near bases for potential prostitution and human trafficking problems. The USFK website currently lists about 50 clubs that have been declared off-limits to servicemembers due to prostitution and human-trafficking violations.
USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp said earlier this year there will be no categorical prohibition on juicy bars — only those caught in the act of promoting prostitution and human trafficking.
“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.”