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SEOUL — U.S. Forces Korea officials said Thursday that the drinking age for its personnel is 21 — and it’s going to stay that way.

“USFK is not considering a revision of the current policy,” spokesman Dave Oten replied via e-mail when asked whether the command planned to mirror a new U.S. Marine Corps policy announced Thursday for Okinawa and Japan.

Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Weber, commander of Marine Corps Bases Japan, lowered the drinking age for his troops from 21 to 20 effective this coming Monday. Marine officials said the change ensures the Corps’ policy is consistent with Japanese law and that the Marines will be treated like other U.S. servicemembers and the Japanese public.

U.S. military officials in South Korea raised the drinking age from 20 to 21 on Nov. 1, 2004, with the stated goal of reducing the number of alcohol-related incidents involving younger troops.

That change caused controversy with the off-base bars and restaurants that cater to the U.S. military crowd in South Korea, where the legal drinking age is 20.

South Koreans opposed to the higher drinking age say the U.S. military forces them to follow American rules with the threat of killing their business. If an establishment doesn’t enforce the U.S. military drinking age, the U.S. military deems it “off-limits” to its troops.

The issue flared up earlier this summer when Area III commander Col. Michael J. Taliento Jr., placed two bars off-limits after an undercover investigation showed they were serving troops that were underage — at least by U.S. rules.

A new memorandum of understanding was signed among Area III and local entertainment associations following a weeklong protest by bar owners outside Camp Humphreys. Some bars decided to ban troops under 21 while other owners considered creating an “underage club” for the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who still want to dance and socialize off base.

Yi Hun-hui, president of the Korea Special Tourist Association, Pyeongtaek Chapter, said Thursday that he’d like to address the issue with USFK when the time is right.

He said he wants to wait until U.S.-South Korean discussions on the future of the alliance are finished before complaining.

“I mean, why only in Korea?” he asked about stricter drinking age.

Soldiers who talked to Stars and Stripes on Thursday contended that individual responsibility is the key to behavior, not necessarily a stricter drinking age.

Pfc. Cristin Baughman, 21, was 19 when she first arrived in South Korea.

“It’s all about personal responsibility,” said Baughman, of Area I headquarters company. “There are plenty of people over 21 who can’t handle their alcohol, just like people under 21 … is a year really going to make that much of a difference?”

Sgt. Nick Drumm, 23, said he understands keeping the on-base rules in line with U.S. laws. But he said he believes U.S. servicemembers should follow the host nation’s laws when they leave the gates.

Several soldiers said they didn’t believe lowering the drinking age in South Korea would result in any further illegal or violent incidents. People seeking trouble will find a way, whatever the legal drinking age, they said.

Hwang Hae-rym and Erik Slavin contributed to this report.

The rules ...

U.S. Forces Korea officials referred Thursday to Command Policy No. 8, signed by commander Gen. B.B. Bell on May 28.

That letter states that all military and civilians under age 21 — to include contractors, technical representatives and family members — cannot buy, drink or be served alcohol beverages on or off base in South Korea.

Troops who fail to follow the rules can be punished by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to the letter. And civilians can face administrative sanctions, including the loss of a base pass and other privileges.

— Stars and Stripes

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