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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Only blind or visually impaired people legally could provide massages in South Korea — until now.

The Korean Supreme Court recently declared a law granting visually impaired people the exclusive right to work as massage therapists unconstitutional.

The freedom to choose occupation trumps the right to a special place in society, the court wrote in its ruling.

The ruling caught servicemembers by surprise — few were aware Monday afternoon that legal masseuses and masseurs were ever required to be blind in the first place.

“I thought I’d heard everything about this place, until just now,” said Senior Airman Mike Crabb, who is wrapping up his one-year tour.

While soldiers and airmen in Area I could identify off-post businesses that offered “special massages,” none could think of a spa or blind massage business within Uijeongbu, a city of about 400,000 people that includes camps Red Cloud and Stanley.

Stars and Stripes called the Korea Masseur Association to find a legal massage business in the area. But when a female Stripes reporter inquired about that location’s business, she was told that they did not provide massages for women.

“Sports massages,” the kind that feel a bit like getting delightfully pummeled by a football team, are more common in the Itaewon district outside of Seoul’s Yongsan Garrison. It’s the neighborhood where Kim-Hyung Gyun and his staff of five blind massage therapists ply their trade at the Danson Health Care Massage Service.

Kim said some of his best customers are U.S. servicemembers and their families.

“The only available occupation we can hold in a tough job market is in massage,” Kim said. “Now, if anyone can do it, we would completely lose our small ground to stand on our own feet. I want to believe that some measures for us will be offered by the government.”

While industry groups are consulting with the government on their next action, many blind masseurs and masseuses are taking to the streets.

A masseur attempted to light himself on fire last week during a protest in central Seoul, according to a South Korean news agency. Four masseurs jumped off the Mapo Bridge and into the Han River during a weeklong protest in Seoul last week. Also last week, several dozen blind people jumped on a subway track at Myongdong station, disrupting the trains for 40 minutes, according to Yonhap News.

The controversy is all a bit puzzling to U.S. servicemembers used to open job markets in their home country. A few suggested that the court ruling could inject a dose of old-fashioned American capitalism into the business.

“This could start up competition between the blind and the nonblind,” Gratson said. “So why go blind? Well, they’re going to be cheaper.”

Others said the main issue was competency, not the ability to see.

“If they could do the job as well as people who can see, it doesn’t matter to me,” Senior Airman Jason Robertson said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.

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