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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Military officials are targeting a black-market scheme that involves spouses of U.S. soldiers and civilians buying duty-free food at commissaries in Area I and II for resale to South Korean restaurants, according to ration control officials.

Authorities in Area I, including ration control officers from several facilities and the Camp Red Cloud Garrison, agreed last month on a plan to crack down on black-market activities at base commissaries, Camp Red Cloud-based ration control officer Joy Kelly said.

Ration control officers will increase their vigilance inside commissaries and report anyone they think is black-marketing, Kelly said. Ration-control offices at Camp Red Cloud and camps Stanley and Casey will work together for the crackdown, she said.

Kelly called black marketing of commissary goods a big problem in Area I.

“It has gotten so bad we can’t even go in to the commissary to buy meat,” she said. “The black marketers know what days the meat is delivered. They come in and buy it all up. You can’t go in and buy a roast because all the meat is taken.”

Commissary spokeswoman Nancy O’Nell stressed that since mostly single servicemembers populate Area I, few roasts are purchased because they’re “not a popular item.”

She said “a nice selection of steaks, ground beef and pork items that stay on the shelf throughout the sales day.”

Some spouses of U.S. soldiers and civilians have told Kelly that they’re under pressure from friends to get involved in the black-market trade, she said.

“One lady who came to get her ration card said she had already been approached by some of her friends who told her black marketing is really good to help her husband out with finances,” Kelly said.

The spouses buy duty-free food at the commissaries then sell it to South Korean restaurants, she said.

Last week, a woman had her ration card confiscated for purchasing goods from the CRC Commissary for her restaurant near the base’s front gate. The woman, who closed her restaurant after her card was confiscated, had asked several soldiers to buy goods for her restaurant with their ration cards, Kelly said.

“There is a professional black-market circuit that involves spouses traveling to Camp Casey, Camp Stanley, CRC and Yongsan Garrison on the same day or over several days,” Kelly said.

Most don’t exceed the monthly limit on commissary purchases monitored by the ration control office. For a single individual the limit is $450 a month, but most such customers spend only about $300, she said.

Spam, which sells for $1.99 per 12-ounce can at the CRC Commissary, is said to be the most coveted item. It’s used in some of South Korea’s most popular meals, including kim bap, a concoction similar to the Japanese sushi; kimchi stew, which combines Spam with spicy cabbage; and stir-fried rice.

U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman Maj. Edwina Walton said authorities have tracked black marketing of hot dogs, rice, beef short ribs, beef oxtails, peanut butter, bacon, ground beef, honey and baby formula, among other items.

Walton said black marketers target “primarily items that are usually in demand on the economy but are considered expensive.”

The most notorious recent case involved a tunnel dug under the fence surrounding the Hannam Village housing area in Seoul that was used to move hundreds of cases of beer to the black market in 2003.

The Provost Marshal’s Office, along with USFK Military Police Investigations and Criminal Investigations Command, had discovered past cases of South Korean merchants selling American goods, she said.

Once, a tip was received from an anonymous source who witnessed a family member at a USFK installation buying items and immediately taking them off the installation to sell them to South Korean merchants. The merchants repackaged the items to sell at a higher price. The Provost Marshal’s Office was able to work with local base officials to catch the violator, Walton said.

One method USFK uses to fight black marketing is the Command Unique Tracking System, or CUTS. CUTS monitors individuals’ purchase histories and spots any suspect trends or purchases of large quantities of an item, Walton said.

Each time customers buy an item at the commissary, their Social Security or identification number is recorded from their ration card, allowing officials to track how much they spend and what they buy, officials said.

There are monthly spending limits at the commissaries determined by USFK and based on family size. One person can spend up to $450; a family of two, $700; three people, $900; four people, $1,050; five people, $1,250; and six people, $1,450, Walton said.

“CUTS reports are reviewed monthly,” she said, with suspected violations being forwarded to unit commanders.

Commissary employees should contact their supervisors if they observe any unusual customer purchases, she said. If significant activity is observed, commissary management then is to alert installation authorities, she said.

People with knowledge of USFK-procured items being transferred in violation of South Korean customs law should contact Military Police Investigations at DSN 724-4293, or the Black Marketing Hot Line (USFK Customs) at DSN 738-5111, officials 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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