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South Korean bar owners unhappy with off-limits rulings

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 1, 2005

UIJONGBU, South Korea — The group that provides off-base entertainment for many U.S. soldiers, the Korean Special Tourist Association, has 49 members in Tongducheon and branches in Toka-Ri, Uijongbu, Seoul, Pusan, Taegu, Song-Tan, Pyongtaek and various other areas near U.S. bases in South Korea.

The South Korean government does not tax alcohol purchased by KSTA members but prohibits them from serving South Korean customers unless they are with a U.S. servicemember.

Tongduchoen KSTA president Park Young-ho, who owns the Mustang Club in Tongduchoen, said he’s been in business outside Camp Casey for 25 years. The biggest change during that time, he said, happened after Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. military indicated it would declare off-limits any bar that did not impose strict rules, including checking customers’ ID cards.

Park said the U.S. Army told the bars they could serve only U.S. servicemembers and civilians; they could not serve people from other countries, including “southeast Asian nations,” or risk being declared off-limits. Park said such people were a substantial part of the bars’ business before Sept. 11.

Tongduchoen and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province are home to many foreign factory workers from developing nations; some of those workers are suspected of being in South Korea illegally, officials have said.

Then, last year more than 3,000 soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division deployed to Iraq, reducing bar owners’ incomes, Park said, adding that the financial squeeze means KSTA bars cannot afford to hire South Korean women to work as hostesses.

There is also a stigma associated with the industry, he said: “South Koreans refer to it as a 3D industry — that means dangerous, dirty” and difficult.

So KSTA bars employ predominantly Filipino women as hostesses. About 350 Filipino women are bar workers in Tongduchoen, Park said. The women can speak English well but more importantly for his business, he said, they are willing to work for half the wages South Korean bar workers demand.

Filipino nightclub workers in Tongduchoen get paid $640 a month plus room and board, the cost of their airline tickets from the Philippines and money to pay a commission to the recruiting agent who signed them up, Park said.

The real cost of employing them is about $1,500 a month, estimated KSTA spokesman Joe Yong Sok, a fluent English speaker who helps the organization in its dealing with the U.S. military.

The rules for placing clubs off-limits grate on club owners. For example, the King Club, near Camp Casey’s front gate, was placed off-limits recently for not checking IDs, he said.

The Army officials “just unilaterally place establishments off-limits without prior notice. They don’t give a detailed description about what they are doing wrong,” he said.

At Songtan near Osan Air Base, he said, a procedure exists for KSTA bars suspected of breaking the rules to explain themselves.

“The bars here never get that chance. We have been trying to open communication channels with the U.S. military with no luck,” he said.

Area I spokesman David McNally said the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board decides about placing clubs off-limits. He said each U.S. base in South Korea has such a board, headed by the installation commander.

If mitigating circumstances exist or a problem is fixed, a bar can apply to the board in writing to be put back on-limits, he said. A bar owner unhappy with a board decision can appeal it to the Area I commander, he said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.


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