Troops support, wonder about effectiveness of anti-prostitution rules
SEOUL — U.S. servicemembers in South Korea largely support newly proposed rules to make pandering illegal under military law but also wonder about the effectiveness of military and government efforts to combat the sex trade and human trafficking overseas.
Tuesday in Washington, top Pentagon officials announced their intention to add a specific anti-prostitution charge to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, making a conviction punishable by one year confinement and a dishonorable discharge.
Wednesday at U.S. bases in South Korea, reaction was swift.
“It kind of surprises me that there wasn’t something specific about that in the UCMJ before but I think this shows the [military] is not just saying ‘stop doing it,’ they’re putting out a punishment that will make a lot of people think twice,” said Sgt. Michael Wright, of the 18th Medical Command.
“This would show they’re really serious.”
Sitting at an outdoor cafe around the corner from Itaewon’s infamous “Hooker Hill” — a red-light district just a stone’s thrown from the U.S. military headquarters at Yongsan Garrison — another group of soldiers agreed.
“Absolutely it makes sense,” said Spc. Tim Roberts, of 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. “I don’t know how many guys will actually have to get busted before it starts working, but it’s gotta help cut down the problem.”
Staff Sgt. Kristie Knappenberger, of the 303rd Intelligence Squadron at Osan Air Base, thinks such an addition to the UCMJ might be a good thing, especially if it helps curb servicemember involvement with prostitutes, including occasional marriages to women who work in bars, known as so-called “juicy girls.”
“I don’t see any problem with it,” Knappenberger said of the prospective change. “I don’t think it would be a bad idea. If anything, it would be good. ... I know there’s always been a big deal about the girls downtown — ‘juicies.’ So it would help here and stateside.
“A lot of junior people get here and they get involved with that and it affects them not only here but at home. Once they return home, financially, with their family life, if they do decide to get married to one of the girls they met, it carries over.”
Senior Airman Tom Guess of the 51st Logistics Readiness Squadron also thought it might be beneficial. And he saw nothing wrong with having the proposed change apply in countries in which prostitution might be legal.
“I think it’s fair,” said Guess. “ ‘Cause I mean, if you get caught doing it in the civilian world — I don’t see why it would be different. If you go to Saudi Arabia you can’t really drink there. You can drink in the States but you can’t drink in Saudi Arabia.”
Military officials also promised a crackdown on civilian contractors not subject to the UCMJ.
“Nobody’s saying soldiers don’t go to hookers, but lots of times, it’s the civilian guys who are out there on Hooker Hill all the time,” said one soldier. “You’ve got to crack down on both groups.”
Some soldiers questioned whether either the new U.S. military or South Korean efforts would have any real effect on the sex trade. Sgt. Nicole Webster, for example, thinks the demand always will outpace legal efforts.
“If that’s what someone is looking for, you’re not going to be able to stop them with more threats. They already know they’ll get punished for it under existing rules but that doesn’t seem to make some people think twice,” she said.
One suggestion she had was for the military to make public the punishments levied under the existing codes. U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Leon J. LaPorte told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday that military efforts have “resulted in the prosecution of more than 400 servicemembers for related offenses, such as curfew violation and trespassing posted off-limits locations.”
But as Webster and other soldiers pointed out, those sanctions largely are doled out through nonjudicial punishment, details of which the military does not release. Any deterrent effect of such punishments usually does not reach beyond a small number of the soldiers’ friends, the soldiers said.
And if prostitution already is illegal in South Korea, Webster asked, why would the new rules be more effective at preventing people from frequenting prostitutes?
The proposed military changes coincide with a new set of South Korean laws meant to crack down on the sex industry — which technically is illegal but in practice is an open, rampant and lucrative business. South Korean officials say a major purpose of their new campaign — in addition to the new laws — is to more strictly enforce existing laws.
According to the Gender Equality Ministry, more than 330,000 women worked in some 80,000 sex industry establishments in 2002, the last year figures were available.
All told, the ministry said, the sex industry in South Korea — including legal entertainment associated with brothels — accounts for some $20 billion each year.
Beginning Wednesday, tougher anti-prostitution laws took effect in South Korea, including one requiring a mandatory three-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of engaging in human trafficking for the sex trade. Members of organized crime would get a minimum of five years.
Another new law offers rewards of 20 million won (around $17,000) for information leading to the conviction of human traffickers. Another provision lets the government confiscate all proceeds and property earned through the illegal sex trade. An additional new wrinkle would differentiate legally between women involuntarily in the sex trade (who would be classified as victims) and those who are determined to voluntarily sell sex (who would be punished as criminals).
Under a broader program, South Korea’s government has promised to shut down all of the country’s estimated 70 red-light districts.