Filipina and Russian women are being sold into sexual slavery in the seedy bars and nightclubs that serve U.S. military bases in South Korea
On a recent night, three sergeants from the American Midwest sit at a table in a pizza joint downrange with a heavily made-up, platinum blonde Russian in a tight T shirt and pants. She sips mango juice and says nothing. Dressed in T shirts and jeans, the men swig Budweisers from the bottle and joke with each other. They do not want to give their names. "Just chillin' out," says one, his brown hair cropped on the sides and brush-cut short on top. He likes the Army, he says, though he can't wait to get home to see his young daughter. He is proud to be up here, "protecting democracy" from North Korean aggression. But that concern doesn't extend to the Russian and Filipina women who work the bars where he spends his free time: they're just part of the landscape. "The women are here because they've been tricked," he says, nonchalantly. "They're told they're going to be bartending or waitressing, but once they get here, things are different," he adds, with a knowing look.
The fact that the women may have been forced into prostitution doesn't seem to bother most of their soldier-patrons. Nor, until recently, did it bother the military brass at the bases. But now a U.S. Senator and 12 members of Congress are demanding action. Alarmed by a Fox Television news report casing brothels where trafficked women were allegedly forced to prostitute themselves to G.I.s, the lawmakers sent a letter to the Pentagon in May, asking for an investigation. "If U.S. soldiers are patrolling or frequenting these establishments, the military is in effect helping to line the pockets of human traffickers," the legislators told U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In June, the Pentagon pledged to investigate the trafficking allegations in Korea and check other U.S. military installations around the world. (A Pentagon spokesman could not confirm whether such an investigation had started. In a written statement, the U.S. military in Korea says it has nearly completed an inquiry into the allegations.)
In Korea, concern over the behavior of U.S. troops comes at a particularly sensitive time. Many younger Koreans resent the U.S. military presence on their soil. Sex crimes involving G.I.s prompt periodic outbursts of anti-Americanism. And last Wednesday, 3,000 angry demonstrators staged a noisy protest in downtown Seoul over the death of two young teenage girls who were crushed by a military vehicle during a June training exercise on a public highway not far from Tongduchon. Numerous apologies from the U.S. military have failed to cool growing public anger over the incident. The military has refused to relinquish jurisdiction over the soldiers.
For their part, the U.S. lawmakers are particularly concerned about the charge that soldiers are paying to have sex with women who have been forced into prostitution. In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, putting Washington at the forefront of efforts to combat the growing worldwide trade in women. Republican Congressman Christopher Smith, the chief sponsor of the law and one of the lawmakers pushing the Pentagon to clean up its act, says he was shocked to learn that it's business as usual up in Tongduchon: "There needs to be a very aggressive ending of this outrage," he told TIME. "We need to lead by example."
A good place to start the campaign might be Club Y, a sleazy haunt that Filipinas working on the strip call "a bad bar." Rosie Danan found out just how bad the week she started working there in late 1999, at the age of 16. Back home in Manila, a recruiting agency had promised Danan the job would require her merely to serve drinks and chat with customers. After she arrived in Korea—on a false passport—Club Y's mama-san took her papers away and told her the rules: she would be serving up her body as well as booze. She would get no days off for the first three months. And later, she could earn days off only if she sold enough drink and sex. She would live in a room above the club and, unless she was with the mama-san, would not be allowed outside except for three minutes a day to make a phone call. The penalty for coming back late: $8 a minute.
At least 16 Filipinas have escaped from bars near Tongduchon since June, bringing with them similar horror stories. Official statistics show 5,000 women have been trafficked in Korea since the mid-'90s, but human-rights groups says the real figure is much higher. More than 8,500 foreign women entered Korea last year on "entertainment" visas, mostly Filipinas and Russians. These visas are a tool for international trafficking, says Goh Hyun Ung, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration: "The women don't know they are going to be locked up as soon as they get to clubs and forced into prostitution." Goh says U.S. soldiers sometimes help Filipinas escape from clubs, but most are ignorant of the trafficking. He blames commanders for not educating the troops: "The U.S. military in Korea has always pretended the problem didn't exist."
Danan had to dance on stage every night, eight times a night—and, the mama-san warned, all her clothes had better be off before the song ended. It was the most humiliating thing she had ever done. But a few days later, it got worse—a G.I. came in and paid to take her to one of Club Y's squalid VIP rooms, where sex costs $60 for 10 minutes and about $160 for half an hour. The mama-san gave her tissues and a condom, and hit her when she resisted. "Every time I am crying," says Danan. "The mama-san said, 'If you cry like that in the business, the business is going down.'"
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Army Thomas White wrote Congressman Smith to assure him that military brass in Korea "in no way encourage, support or condone any aspect of prostitution or human trafficking." Colonel Sam Taylor, a spokesman at the main U.S. installation in Seoul, says the military is aware of the worldwide problem of human trafficking. "If presented with evidence of illegal activity, we'll start the process in motion to make those establishments off-limits."
But the reality is the bars are utterly dependent on their American patrons. Of the 41 major U.S. military camps in Korea, the 12 biggest are served by nearby "camptowns," where bar owners licensed by the Korean government sell tax-free alcohol to G.I.s. (Korean civilians are not allowed in the bars.) Some 2 million customers visited the camptowns in 2000, the last year for which figures are available, according to Korea's Culture and Tourism Ministry. Troops at all the military installations in Korea are briefed on the consequences of engaging in illegal activities, including the one-year jail term that paying for sex can bring under U.S. military law. There are no briefings on the issue of trafficking, Taylor says: "It is probably something we will start to brief them on."
But last week there was little indication that much had changed downrange. Young men with crew cuts still loiter in bars, fondling Filipina and Russian women, or paying for lap dances. And at least some of the bars still offer "VIP services." The bar owners deny that their dancers are tricked or forced into prostitution. Hyun Ju, Club Y's manager, is emphatic that "no woman has ever been mistreated at this club." She claims that "the owner treats the girls like family. He even takes the girls on holiday to the swimming pool." Kim Kyong Soo, president of the Korean Special Tourism Industry Association, which represents bar owners serving U.S. soldiers across Korea, says his members complain that the U.S. military allows Filipinas into Camp Casey to have sex with soldiers. "That's where the prostitution begins," he insists. "If we put a stop to that, it would be much easier for the entertainers to do their job." ("That activity should not be taking place. It is certainly something we are going to ask questions about," says military spokesman Taylor.)
Kim, who owns the Palace Club on the Tongduchon strip, has himself been accused of trafficking in women. In Aug. 1999, police issued an arrest warrant for him on suspicion he brought more than 1,000 Filipina and Russian women into Korea to work as bar girls around U.S. military bases. Kim says he followed legal procedures. A judge cancelled the warrant for lack of evidence and closed the case.
Kim was working in the area in the early 1960s, when bar owners near the base were granted government approval to form the Tongduchon Special Tourism Industry Association. That gave them the right to buy and sell alcohol tax free to U.S. soldiers and other foreigners. At a time when Korea was still dirt-poor, this was a vital source of foreign exchange—and a way to keep G.I.s from troubling Korean women not involved in the sex industry. Until the early 1990s, the women working downrange were almost all Korean. But in the mid-'90s, with the economy booming, Korean bar girls became too expensive. So, Kim claims, he negotiated with the Korean government to bring in Filipina and Russian women on special entertainment visas. Contacted by TIME, an immigration official said he had never heard of such an agreement.
The supervision of the camptown bar owners association is the responsibility of the Culture and Tourism Ministry. But Choi Byung Goo, a ministry director, says he does not know if there is any prostitution in the camptowns. "The bars are tourist restaurants for foreigners," he says. "There is no way we can know how they operate their businesses." If he had gone to Tongduchon last week, he might have heard about the four Filipinas who say they escaped from one of the clubs, where they were forced to dance naked and got a day off only if they sold an impossibly high number of drinks a month. The women told their stories to a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, who is conducting an undercover investigation into conditions in Tongduchon. Despite Choi's protestations of ignorance, the researcher says the government is aware of the trafficking: "They would have to know. The anti-prostitution and trafficking NGOs have all been lobbying them on this issue."
Danan's story had a happy ending—almost. She escaped from her mama-san a year and a half ago with the help of a Filipino priest. Last June, she returned to Korea hoping to marry her G.I. boyfriend, only to face another bitter disappointment. He beat her, she says, and almost smothered her with a pillow. So she went back to the shelter run by the Filipino priest. Downrange, some of the soldiers say they have heard stories like that. But a lot of guys are just young and lonely and looking for a woman to drink a beer with. "It's about companionship, it's not about sex," says a soldier who's heard about trafficking, while enjoying the rock 'n' roll music at the Sun Club. At Club Y, a soldier sits with his buddy nursing a beer as two Filipinas perform a lap dance for G.I.s at the table behind him. He thought prostitution was legal in Korea and has not heard about the trafficking, but says, "There's nothing I could do about it." At the pizza joint, the three sergeants don't have anything more to say, telling a reporter: "We shouldn't be talking to you." Why not? "We're here to protect democracy. We're not here to practice it." They finish their beers and head out onto the strip, the platinum blonde Russian in tow.