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SEOUL — As South Korea continues a nationwide prostitution crackdown, a U.S. Forces Korea official said this week that the number of American troops visiting brothels in South Korea has dropped in recent years and is now "very low."

Chuck Johnson, action officer for USFK’s Prostitution and Human Trafficking Working Group, said U.S. troops’ participation in prostitution was "a major issue" when the group formed five years ago. Now, about five servicemembers a year get into trouble for prostitution-related crimes, and the lack of business has forced some brothels outside U.S. military installations to close, he said. Johnson said educating troops about human trafficking is working. Servicemembers are required to complete computer-based training on prostitution before or when they arrive in South Korea, and additional training is required twice a year while they’re on the peninsula.

"It’s a sustained, continuous operation," he said.

South Korean police began a nationwide, three-month crackdown on prostitution in July. Police said earlier this month they planned to begin raiding brothels in the "glass house" area near Yongsan Station and on Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill in mid-September. Both locations are within walking distance of Yongsan Garrison, home to the headquarters for the U.S. military in South Korea.

A South Korean police officer said no U.S. troops were arrested during the recent sting, although a massage parlor in Hannam-dong, the neighborhood next to military’s Hannam Village housing area, that caters to South Korean businessmen was shut down.

And through the end of October, police will focus on shutting down illegal "hyugaetels," or rest hotels, where customers can call ahead to hire a prostitute and rent small rooms by the hour.

Former USFK commander Gen. Leon LaPorte started the command’s quarterly PHT group meeting in 2003 after a Fox News report that said American servicemembers were involved in trafficking prostitutes and a subsequent congressional investigation. After that incident, USFK instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward prostitution, toughening some of its regulations and setting up a hotline for people to report human-trafficking violations.

In an interview with Stripes in the fall of 2004, LaPorte said nearly 400 servicemembers had been punished that year for offenses related to prostitution. Those offenses included soliciting prostitutes, curfew violations and visiting off-limits establishments. Most were punished through Article 15s, nonjudicial punishments handed down by unit commanders.

Of the 11 calls made to USFK and Department of Defense hot lines in the past year, nine were deemed "unfounded." Two businesses outside Osan Air Base were put off limits based on the other reports.

Johnson said South Korean attitudes toward prostitution are rapidly changing. The country toughened its prostitution laws in 2004 to treat sex workers more as victims and increase penalties for their customers, he said.

"It used to be the johns would get a slap on the wrist, and the workers would get the stiffer punishment," he said.

Johnson said some brothels in the Dongducheon area that catered primarily to U.S. troops have closed in recent years because of a lack of business. But he said it’s frustrating to see that brothels in Itaewon, which have a larger pool of customers, remain open.

"There’s nothing else we as a hosted nation can do to shut them down," he said.

Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.

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