YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Calling U.S. soldiers in for questioning could help South Korean police investigate trafficking of foreign women, a South Korean Ministry of Justice official said Monday.

Currently, soldiers can’t easily be summoned for questioning in such investigations, said Lee Heung-lak, a South Korean prosecutor who has worked on sex-trade issues.

Lee, a Defense Department inspector general and Pacific Command and State Department officials previously discussed the idea, Lee said. The U.S. military would allow South Korean authorities to question soldiers if they are suspected of being involved in prostitution or human trafficking, U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman Lee Ferguson said.

“We also know of nothing that prevents ROK (Republic of Korea) authorities from talking to military members as witnesses during an investigation,” Ferguson wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Trafficking issues surfaced last year after a Fox News report asserted the U.S. military passively supported a thriving sex industry involving foreign women imported illegally from countries such as the Philippines and Russia.

The news report contended the women worked in bars outside U.S. military facilities selling drinks and sex.

USFK law enforcement and Korean National Police officials have monthly meetings to discuss concerns, said Lt. Col. Timothy J. Loney, civil affairs officer for 8th MP Brigade.

A special hot line was “established as part of our effort to combat prostitution and human trafficking,” Loney said.

Soldiers can report prostitution or human trafficking, and tips are investigated, he said. The numbers are DSN 333 or, from off-post, 0505 736-9333.

Soldiers will be briefed on trafficking and prostitution later this month as part of a U.S. military-wide stand-down day to be devoted to examining safety issues, Loney said.

Lt. Gen. Charles C. Campbell, 8th Army commander, received an award from Korean National Police on July 1 — Korean Women’s Day — for military efforts to combat human trafficking and prostitution, Loney said.

From May 30, 2002, to June 1, two servicemembers in Area I — which includes the 2nd Infantry Division and other units — received nonjudicial punishment for prostitution-related activities, Ferguson said. During the same period, three Air Force servicemembers were punished.

The punishment, known as an Article 15, is for offenses generally less serious than those handled at summary courts-martial, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In June, South Korea halted visas to women working in the sex trade. Traffickers obtained the six-month visas — called E6 visas and earmarked for entertainers such as singers — for foreign women working in bars.

About 6,500 women have E6 visas now, Lee said, but many will not be renewed. Legitimate visas, such as those held by women working at amusement parks, will still be granted.

Restrictions on E6 visas are “an improvement of the system,” said Goh Hyun-ung, chief of International Organization for Migration’s Seoul office. The intergovernmental organization, founded in 1951, works with the United Nations.

But Goh said traffickers might try different visa types or misrepresent the work women will do to gain them legal entry.

During a February trip organized by the 8th Army Inspector General’s office, Goh accompanied Defense Department inspectors general during a walk-through of some areas near U.S. bases.

“I believe they are doing a great job here nowadays, but I’m still kind of concerned if the increased attention from outside the military dies down,” Goh said.

He advocates closer partnerships between bases and nongovernmental organizations that help women.

Goh said U.S. officials called the idea “interesting.”

South Korean police are paying more attention to the issue, Goh said.

“The key here is continued monitoring,” he said. “Now that the situation is broadly known, I think it’s going to be a bit difficult for the managers to go back to the old business.”

South Korea is both source and destination for women trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to the 2003 Trafficking in Persons Report released in June by the State Department.

Victims come from the Philippines, Thailand, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the report said.

South Korea complained bitterly in July 2001 after being labeled a country that didn’t meet U.S. minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, according to a report commissioned by the International Organization of Migration.

Now, South Korea meets the standard and has taken “important steps to reduce police corruption associated with trafficking,” according to the State Department.

The inspector general is reviewing whether USFK programs are effective in addressing human trafficking, Ferguson said.

Near Yongsan Garrison, 29 bars were put off-limits in March in the Itaewon district after base officials found prostitution.

Choe Song-won contributed to this report.

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