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SEOUL — Seoul customs officials are investigating 17 South Koreans they say black-marketed about 56,000 cases of beer from U.S. military bases in Area I.

Kwon Ju-sung, investigation division head of the Seoul Customs Office, said the 18th suspect, identified only as an Area I Army and Air Force Exchange Service store manager, died on Aug. 1 after jumping from the roof of his apartment.

U.S. Forces Korea officials, contacted late Thursday afternoon, said they were aware of the reports but were unable to provide immediate comment.

AAFES officials in the U.S. said they were not aware of the incident and had no comment at press time.

Kwon said only one suspect, a 46-year-old AAFES employee named Lee, is under arrest. Kwon would not specify the Area I camp at which Lee worked.

Citing security reasons, Kwon declined to detail how the case was investigated but said it had been tracked over a long period of time.

He said both domestic and imported beers were diverted from the stores into local businesses in Paju, Dongducheon and Uijeongbu.

Members of the ring paid on average $14 per case of beer and sold each for about a $10 profit, he said.

Kwon said that with base closures in Area I, many South Korean employees have said they are worried about losing their jobs. He said the customs investigation found that the black-market ring provided some with profits and job security, since their sales were high.

While it is illegal for off-base businesses to purchase the black-market alcohol, Kwon said, it’s difficult to track the problem with limited law enforcement resources.

AAFES stores in South Korea have had problems with alcohol smuggling in the past.

In October 2003, customs investigators discovered an underground tunnel from a Hannam Village warehouse being used to smuggle beer and liquor.

The former post exchange manager there was arrested for the theft, and AAFES reported that more than $76,000 in inventory was stolen.

In September 2002, a Camp Stanton AAFES employee and five other South Koreans were charged in connection with the illegal sale of 1,500 cases of beer, whiskey and medicine to area stores.

And in June 2001, 18 South Koreans, including three AAFES employees, were arrested on customs violations for a two-year smuggling operation at Yongsan Garrison that moved 1,000 cases of beer a week to the local black market.

AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey said officials have mandated monthly inventory reviews of wine, beer and spirits for exchanges in South Korea in an attempt to limit the alcohol thefts.

Stripes reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this report from Washington.

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