Osan customs checks newcomers in, keeps contraband out
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — It was a warm and sunny Thursday morning when the big white jetliner rolled to a stop on the flight line and the airmen from the passenger terminal stepped out for a quick look.
They knew that within minutes, the 235 passengers would be seated inside the air-conditioned, blue-tiled terminal, and then it would be the airmen’s job as customs inspectors to take it from there.
The plane was the twice-weekly Patriot Express. Most aboard were arriving to start a new South Korea assignment; a few were returning from leave. Among them were some military spouses and small children.
The customs team, camouflage-clad airmen with black armbands that said “Customs,” would give a ten-minute briefing on what items are forbidden in South Korea, then tell the passengers about curfew hours for U.S. military personnel. Waiting on each seat was an immigration arrival card and United States Forces Korea Customs Declaration Form 96, 1 May 97.
“Items To Declare?” it asked, and listed some, with boxes to check: weapons, knives, swords, ammunition, etc; drugs, psychotropic substances, etc; animals (including meats, stuffed specimens), agricultural products such as plants, fruits, vegetables, etc; more than 1 bottle of alcoholic beverage, 10 packs of cigarettes or other tobacco products; pornographic material (tapes, discs, books, magazines or pictures); commercial goods for resale or gifts; currency (including traveler’s checks) exceeding $10,000.”
Giving Thursday’s briefing was Senior Airman Cristina Chomina, a customs inspector with the 51st Security Forces Squadron.
“Anybody putting false information on this document will be prosecuted,” Chomina told them. “If you have any of these items you need to be as honest as possible.
“Say you have Tylenol with you. Go ahead and check the box and say ‘Tylenol.’ We need to know you’re bringing it into the country. You do not need to dispose of it.”
As to pornography, “You can’t have it,” she told them.
“Marital aids,” she said, in using a euphemism that would provoke scattered laughter from the passengers, “are okay.” Chomina was herself smiling now. “We don’t need to know you have them. You don’t need to declare them.”
If passengers have an illegal item — child pornography, say, or drugs, they’re detained and turned over to Air Force police. But if it’s outlawed in South Korea but not in the United States — adult pornography, for instance — authorities will confiscate it but the passenger faces no further action.
“The biggest thing … that people claim are weapons and pornography,” said Staff Sgt. Lisa Rodriguez of Osan’s 51st Security Forces Squadron, noncommissioned officer in charge of military customs at the Osan terminal.
Occasionally, a servicemember is found with pornography he didn’t claim on the customs form. When questioned, the answer often is familiar to the customs team, Rodriguez said: “‘Oh, my brother put that in there,’ they’ll say. ‘Yeah, my friends, they were playing a joke on me.’ We get that a lot.”
Her most memorable moment? “A lady came in, and she had an extensive amount of Mary Kay products, and I had to confiscate it all,” Rodriguez said. The woman had some 683 cosmetic items, raising suspicions she intended to sell them in South Korea. “If they have an excessive amount,” she said, “we’ll confiscate it. They can get their stuff back. They just have to prove that they’re not bringing it here to sell it.”
But having illegal items can trigger severe consequences. For instance, a court-martial here late last month ended the career of an airman who pleaded guilty to downloading child pornography. A military judge sentenced Senior Airman Chad A. Hackfort to reduction to the lowest pay grade, nine months in jail and a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force. Under a pretrial agreement, Hackfort is to serve seven months in jail.
Hackfort declared pornography on his customs form when he arrived at Osan in July 2003. Customs airmen checked his luggage and found a laptop and 64 CDs with pornographic images. Almost all the porn was of adults, but 12 images were of minors. Had they been of adult porn only, authorities would have confiscated and destroyed the material, with no further action taken, officials said. But because child porn is illegal, the Air Force prosecuted.
On Thursday, customs airmen, including Chomina, checked a number of laptops.
“I saw that he had a laptop,” she said of one servicemember. “I asked him if he had any pornographic material on his laptop, and he said no. And I just asked him to let me see the laptop. He just had regular pictures on there. We went through the search engine, hit ‘pictures,’ hit ‘video.’”
But the morning ended uneventfully for the passengers, including the one whose laptop Chomina checked.
“He had a lot of pictures of his dog.”