Bars near the front gate of Camp Casey include the King Club, which was recently declared off-limits.

Bars near the front gate of Camp Casey include the King Club, which was recently declared off-limits. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Servicemembers and contractors who drink in bars surrounding Camp Casey got a carrot-and-stick sort of holiday present this December:

“Just before Christmas, all the clubs pulled together and put on a free concert and free beer for soldiers,” said Sgt. Alex Torres, 33, of Phoenix, with the 302nd Forward Support Battalion. “Then after that day, they raised the price at every club by $1.”

The clubs raised their beer prices by 50 percent, from $2 to $3, almost at once. But they are not under South Korean government investigation because, an official said, no one has complained formally about the price hike.

Like U.S. law, South Korean law makes it illegal for competing businesses to agree on a set price for a product or service, a practice known as price fixing. However, a Korea Fair Trade Commission official said his office cannot investigate any price-fixing allegation until it receives a written complaint including evidence of any offense. The commission has received no such formal complaint about bars in Tongduchoen, near Camp Casey, the official said.

But soldiers and contractors drinking in Tongduchoen last month were vocal in their unhappiness with the price increase, including Torres, who called the $3 beer price “outrageous. We’re here to take care of these folks.”

Most of the Tongduchoen bars frequented by Torres and other U.S. soldiers at Camp Casey are run by members of the Korean Special Tourist Association. Association chief Park Young-ho last week confirmed that KSTA policy now is for members to charge $3 for a beer, though they can charge up to $4 for imported beers such as Heineken and Corona.

Park also said, “The main reasons of raising the price … lay obviously in the increase of personnel expenses (or labor costs), and we haven’t raised the price of beers for the last 6 years even though the production cost of beers have continued to be soaring up. So overall, we think it is [a] very fair price to charge.”

The South Korean government does not tax alcohol purchased by KSTA members. Checks with non-KSTA bars in Tongduchoen, which pay tax on wholesale purchases, showed South Korean customers pay about 3,000 won ($3) for U.S. imported beers and about 3,500 won ($3.50) for South Korean domestic beers sold in larger bottles.

But nor can KSTA members service South Koreans unless they’re with U.S. servicemembers — and last year, several thousand U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team left Camp Casey for Iraq.

Bars consequently have seen a drop-off in business, said Dennis Reihley, a contractor who works at Camp Casey. He’s also junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars club — which, he said, now is the only place soldiers can buy a $2 beer off base in Tongduchoen.

The KSTA tried to get the VFW to raise its beer prices to $3, Reihley said, but the club refused. He said he believes the KSTA wanted the VFW to raise its drink prices out of fear that “soldiers will come here and drink the cheap beer. They look at us as competition.”

Park denied that the price increase was prompted by a shortage of customers after the 2nd Brigade deployed to Iraq.

He also reiterated that rising production and labor costs necessitated the price increase.

But the 302nd FSB’s Sgt. Armando Carbajal, 23, from Alice, Texas, remained both unconvinced and angry. “They are just trying to take more money away from the soldiers,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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