S. Korea bar girls bemoan deployment effects, but applaud prostitution ban

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2004

TONGDUCHON, South Korea — Nightclub workers in Tongduchon have praised U.S. Army plans to make it illegal for soldiers to pay for sex, but they also complain they’re short of work after the recent deployment of thousands of South Korea-based U.S. troops to Iraq.

Next year, troops buying sex could face dishonorable discharge and jail time under a proposed change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And right now, U.S. Forces Korea officials are aggressively pursuing a “zero tolerance” policy against prostitution and human trafficking.

South Korean police embarked last month on a nationwide sex-trade crackdown, resulting in hundreds of arrests. [See related story]

The Pentagon wants to add to the UCMJ a charge specifically addressing prostitution and affixing a maximum punishment of one year of confinement and a dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of paying a prostitute for sex.

In Tongduchon, the South Korean town surrounding some of the largest U. S. bases in South Korea — Camp Casey and Camp Hovey — weekend nights are quieter since the deployment of 3,600 2nd Infantry Division troops to Iraq in August.

In Toka-ri, a section of Tongduchon infamous for its brothels catering to soldiers, most nightclubs are now closed on weekends. Club workers, mainly young Filipinas, said many of the women who used to work in the clubs now are unemployed or have moved to Pyongtaek, the town surrounding the largest U.S. airbase in South Korea, Osan Air Base.

“Rain,” a Filipina former club worker, said she had not heard about the Army’s move to outlaw prostitution but said she supported it “ … because all the ones affected here are Filipina women. The Koreans are forcing them to do that business (prostitution).”

The woman, who didn’t want her real name used, came to South Korea on an entertainer’s visa last year. But when she arrived in the country expecting to sing in a nightclub, she was ordered to dance topless by a nightclub owner. Rain ended up running away from her employer with six other Filipinas, she said.

Now she works as a “drinkie girl” in Tongduchon, getting soldiers to buy her drinks at $10 a shot, with the vast majority of that money going to the club owner. Her conditions of employment are not ideal. On her day off, she is allowed to leave the nightclub between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., but after that she must be in her room or pay a $100 fine, she said.

“And the food sucks … always eggs and noodles, every day,” she said.

Another former Toka-ri club worker, “Myra,” also supported penalties for soldiers who buy sex.

“We need that law so it can stop, and Filipinas can come here and work decently, not be forced by Koreans into prostitution,” she said, sipping a cocktail in a dark upstairs bar on a recent night, while heavy-metal videos played on monitors strung about the ceiling and young soldiers chowed down on a pizza at the bar.

Myra, whose two daughters live with her parents in the Philippines, also ran away from a nightclub manager who forced her to prostitute herself to U.S. soldiers, she said.

A South Korean police spokesman said in July that Myra’s manager, identified only as Park, of Smackers nightclub, and another Toka-ri club manager, Hwang, of X-Club, had been charged with illegally detaining Filipina workers and that they were likely to face human trafficking charges.

Myra said she is trying to find a job in South Korea while she waits for a civil claim against Park to go to court. However, she feared for her safety because Park recently was released from jail and there were rumors that she and other Toka-ri nightclub owners were seeking retribution, Myra said.

Myra hoped the current South Korean crackdown on prostitution and the proposed UCMJ law would start a change in the club industry at Tongduchon.

“The girls [working in clubs] maybe should tone down their clothing and not wear bikini tops. If they (soldiers) could lose their jobs, they will just see the girls in the clubs and not do anything illegal and that is good,” she said.

"Rain," a Filipina bar worker, stands outside some of the Toka-ri nightclubs that are suffering after the departure of 2nd Infantry Division soldiers who are deployed to Iraq. She says she ran away from her South Korean employers after they tried to force her to strip for club patrons.