Philippine Embassy has 'watch list' of suspect bars in South Korea

By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2009

UIJEONGBU, South Korea — Philippine Embassy officials in South Korea have established a “watch list” of bars where they believe Filipinas are forced into prostitution or otherwise exploited and are considering sharing it with the U.S. military in hopes that commanders will put those located near bases off-limits to troops.

Delmer Cruz, Philippine Embassy labor attaché, said the embassy’s list of 103 “performance venues” includes around 20 so-called “juicy bars” that ought to be placed on the U.S. military’s off-limits list.

Patrons at juicy bars are expected to buy expensive juice drinks for the female employees in exchange for their conversation and company, but prostitution and human trafficking have been recurring problems at many of the bars.

Earlier this month, Stars and Stripes reported that, despite the military’s expressed zero tolerance for human trafficking, prostitution continues to be affiliated with many of the juicy bars that cluster in seedy entertainment districts near U.S. military bases across South Korea.

U.S. Forces Korea has placed about 50 bars on its list of off-limits establishments, and another 19 near Osan Air Base narrowly escaped being added earlier this year after bar owners collectively agreed to conditions aimed at eliminating prostitution.

USFK spokeswoman Col. Jane Crichton said the command will “welcome any outside agency that is willing to partner with us, particularly in information sharing,” to combat prostitution and human trafficking.

The Filipinas are brought to Korea on entertainer visas, ostensibly as singers, by promoters who pay their travel expenses and then contract them out to bars, often holding their passports until the contracts are completed. But typically the women don’t learn until they arrive that their primary job is not to sing but to generate juice revenue.

And at some bars, if the women don’t earn enough in juice sales to meet quotas, they are pressured to have sex with patrons — often U.S. servicemen — for a price.

Representatives of a variety of South Korean government and police agencies said they strongly suspect prostitution is a problem in at least some of the juicy bars, but added that no agency is primarily responsible for addressing the issue.

“It’s not easy to prove prostitution, because this is not done openly,” said Cruz. “But there are indicators that prostitution could be happening” at juicy bars. That possibility alone is “not acceptable” and not in keeping with the guidelines set out by the Philippine government for its women to be working in other countries, he said.

Cruz said embassy officials sometimes go undercover to visit “performance venues” where Filipinas are employed as “entertainers.” He added he personally has seen “kissing” and “physical contact” between employees and men at some juicy bars near U.S. bases.

The act of prostitution itself is done outside the bars, making it difficult to break the “entertainment” front that human traffickers use to cover up their illegal activities, Cruz said.

“Some of the women are also threatened by these human traffickers with termination of employment, deportation or jail sentences should they consider approaching the proper authorities for help,” he said.

Cruz said his office also is in the process of drafting a proposal that would tighten up the regulations for granting entertainer visas to Filipinas coming to South Korea.

“We can, for instance, define what exact types of entertainment venues we can send Filipino entertainers,” he said. “We can put in place mechanisms or measures which are all intended to protect the welfare of Filipino entertainers bound for Korea.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.