SEOUL — The Philippine government has stopped approving requests from promoters seeking authorization for Filipinas to work in the “juicy bars” that cluster around U.S. military bases in South Korea and where prostitution is a continuing problem.
“If the venue is located near a U.S. base or the so-called seamen’s clubs near the shipyards ... we have not been approving or verifying the employment documents,” Philippine Embassy labor attache Delmer Cruz said Tuesday.
A Stars and Stripes investigation in September highlighted the ease with which a U.S. servicemember could arrange to pay for sex with the bar workers.
The Philippines crackdown started last year and has been stepped up gradually, Cruz said, pointing out that promoters now submit proposed contracts for work only at venues away from bases and shipyards. The initiative has already thinned the ranks of Filipinas working at South Korean juicy bars dramatically, according to businessmen in Songtan’s Shinjang Mall entertainment district outside Osan Air Base and the Anjung-ri bar district outside Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek.
Lee Young-seon, owner of Songtan’s Join Us club, said the number of Filipinas working in the area has dropped as much as 40 percent in recent months. That has upset U.S. military customers and hurt business, said Lee, a member of the Korean Special Tourist Association that represents about 50 Shinjang Mall clubs.
“No girl — no customer,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cruz said, unscrupulous promoters and recruiters continue to find ways to illegally get around immigration regulations and import Filipinas to work in juicy bars. With that in mind, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration is in the process of drafting a “policy issuance” he hopes will be put in place soon to significantly reduce the number of women brought into South Korea by illicit means.
“This policy will institutionalize everything and try to fill in the gaps,” he said, declining to elaborate until the new regulations are in place.
“This is not 100 percent guaranteed,” Cruz continued. “Having a policy in any country doesn’t mean the action stops. There are laws against illegal drugs, and they still happen.”
In September, Stars and Stripes reported that despite the U.S. military’s stated “zero tolerance” policy against human trafficking, prostitution continues to be a problem at many of the juicy bars that operate by the dozens in seedy entertainment districts near bases around South Korea.
A vast majority of those bars employ Filipinas whose primary job is to flirt with U.S. servicemembers and talk them into buying the women expensive juice drinks in exchange for their continued company and conversation. Those who fall short of juice-sale quotas are often the subject of “bar fines,” meaning they must prostitute themselves to customers to make up the difference.
Filipinas are brought to South Korea by recruiters and promoters who, in effect, rent them out to bars. The women must pass a singing audition in order to secure entertainer visas from Korean immigration officials, and get their proposed employment contracts approved by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
However, Cruz said, an embassy investigation last year found that less than a third of the 1,800 Filipinas granted such visas actually submitted their contracts for review. In many cases, he said, women are brought by recruiters illegally to South Korea, thinking they are being hired to sing and dance in nice establishments, only to find out after they arrive their job is to sell juice — and sometimes their bodies — to U.S. servicemembers.
“We still hear reports that this lady, or group of ladies, was hired thinking they were going to work in a wholesome club — only they were duped and ended up coerced to work in juicy bars or seamen’s clubs, where they didn’t have the chance to escape,” Cruz said.
In such cases, proposed contracts are never submitted for review, he said, “or they say the women are going to work in this hotel or that hotel, but in reality, the entertainer is brought to a certain club” in such places as Songtan and Dongducheon, outside Camp Casey.
Yu Young-nim, director of My Sister’s Place — a social service agency that helps juicy bar employees forced into prostitution in South Korea — said the Philippine Embassy’s actions are a good start in addressing the problem, but more cooperation is needed from the governments of South Korea and the U.S.
“Succeeding in cutting down the number of Filipinas working at juicy bars will not end this problem,” she said, adding that promoters and bar owners will just figure out “loopholes” through which to import women from other countries to work in the bars.
Yu said that since the beginning of the year, she has noticed an increase in the number of Russian women brought into the country to work as prostitutes.
“There is a possibility that these women … will stream into the juicy bars catering to U.S. servicemembers, replacing the Filipino women,” she said. “It is not difficult at all to recruit women from poor nations to work in this industry.”
U.S. military officials have insisted they are doing everything possible to discourage human trafficking and prostitution at base-area establishments, placing any institution found engaging in prostitution off limits.
For example, Osan Air Base officials recently notified the owners of four bars — the UN, Golden Gate, Stardust and Club Sting — their establishments could be declared off limits over reported instances of bar fining.
Those allegations were discussed by the 51st Fighter Wing’s Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board with the owners at a meeting last week, according to 1st Lt. Chris Hoyler, a wing spokesman. The owners are now deciding how they will respond to base authorities, Lee said.
That kind of monitoring will continue, no matter the nationality of the bar employees, according to U.S. Army Area I spokeswoman Margaret Banish-Donaldson.
“We have no control over who bar owners hire,” she said. “If a situation would arise where prostitution is taking place, the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board takes action.”
U.S. military officials have put about 50 base-area bars in South Korea off limits, but they have stopped short of placing all juicy bars off limits as has been done with “glass houses,” where scantily clad women sit in storefront windows trying to lure in customers to pay for sex.
United States Forces Korea officials said they could not immediately respond to the question of whether any consideration would be given to categorically placing juicy bars off limits given the recent measures the Philippine government is taking to keep its women from working in such establishments.