Outside US bases, former bar workers fight sex trafficking
This is the second of a two-part series that explores the shady relationship between the military and the sex industry in Korea. ― ED.
By Kim Young-jin
PYEONGTAEK, Gyeonggi Province - When Klarys (an alias), a 27-year-old from the Philippines, applied to come to Korea on an entertainment visa, she envisioned herself doing what she always wanted ― singing onstage.
But she says the E-6 visa was taken by her Korean promoter upon arrival and that the vision rapidly began to slip away. And very quickly, she says, so did control over her life.
The club she was taken to outside a U.S. military installation had little to do with music. Rather, she said it was a gateway to a seedy industry of entertaining soldiers ― a world where activists claim sex trafficking is not uncommon.
“For me, it was an opportunity to go abroad,” Klarys told The Korea Times. “But I got here and I was dancing on a pole. We were forced to go out (and have sex with) with whoever. You can’t say no.”
U.S. soldiers walk by bars in an entertainment district outside Osan Air Base in Songtan, Gyeonggi Province where foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines, are hired by local promoters to entertain them, Thursday. Some former workers in the clubs are working to file lawsuits after they say they were victims of human trafficking. / Korea Times
Klarys, who now lives in a shelter for sex trafficking victims in this city south of Seoul, is among a number of Filipina women filing lawsuits against their former promoters and bar owners, who they say maintain a system of deception and intimidation that leads to prostitution.
The amount of prostitution ― forced or otherwise ― at such locales is a major point of debate, with some law enforcement officials insisting the activities hardly exist anymore. Still, activists maintain that the justice system is sweeping the issue under the rug as part of “longstanding patronage of prostitution for the U.S. military.”
Addressing the problem, they say, would not only help alleviate trafficking, but represent an important step for the nation if it wants to become more hospitable to migrant women.
Prostitution ― widespread in Korea ― has long been an issue at “camptowns” outside bases such as Osan Airbase and Camp Humphreys in Songtan and Pyeongtaek, and Camp Casey in Dongducheon as a remnant of the 1950-53 Korean War.
In the decades following the war, scholars and former Korean prostitutes say the Korean government encouraged the activities as a source of hard currency and a safeguard against the U.S. leaving the country.
But with the nation’s economic rise, the jobs have largely been outsourced to foreign women, now mostly Filipinas, said You Young-nim, director of My Sister’s Place, a group that offers them counseling.
She estimated that thousands of them now work in “juicy bars” outside the bases, saying soldiers ― despite the military’s “zero-tolerance policy” toward prostitution ― buy glasses of juice in order to spend time, flirt and dance with the women. Those women who fail to meet a quota for juice sales are often subject to “bar fines,” meaning they are told to sell their body to account for the shortfall, she said.
“These women can’t reach out to programs because of their agencies, who maintain careful control over them,” she said.
In 2003, Seoul halted its issuance of a dancer’s visa ― granted to Russians and others ― as it became a thorny diplomatic issue amid international complaints that those who were brought here with the visa were being exploited for prostitution. The move raises questions over why the E-6 visa is still being issued for the so-called “juicy girls,” according to Ms. You.
‘Nobody explains the situation’
According to United Nations protocol, human trafficking includes the recruitment and transportation of persons by means of coercion or deception for the purpose of exploitation including prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation.
Park Su-mi, director of My Sister’s Home, a shelter for sex trafficking victims, said the trafficking begins when the women are still in the Philippines, where locals work with Korean promoters to recruit and deploy them. “Nobody explains to them the situation in Korea. Their contract does not comprehensively tell what it will be like,” she said.
The women, many single mothers, go through a rigorous process before receiving the visa that includes an audition by a local agency and making an audition tape to be reviewed by the Korea Media Rating Board, activists say.
While many are said to know of such conditions before signing up for the temporary visas, some say they are shocked to learn of the conditions. Others expect that they may have to sit with customers after singing, a practice seen in Japan.
Some say they are promised monthly salaries of around $950 but in reality most of the money is tied to the quota system. Those who protest having sex with customers are threatened to be sent to worse-off establishments and withheld pay if they fail to meet their quotas.
A 28-year-old named Jasmine (an alias) said once she was pressured to take drugs to overcome her shyness and taunted of being a “virgin” before she was pulled aside for her first bar fine. “I wanted to kill myself. I tried to,” she recalled, crying.
Despite such testimony, some are doubtful over whether trafficking or even prostitution takes place at juicy bars, leading to debate over the allegations.
A senior police officer at Dongducheon Police Station, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that because NGOs regularly visit the clubs, the women should know how to get help if forced into prostitution.
Park, the shelter director, dismissed the claim, saying that even with help numbers to call women may be hesitant to do so, fearing further action from the bar owners. She said in the past, recruiters in the Philippines have stepped in with threats to reveal their situation to family members, adding that the owners are well-networked and hold political sway.
She said by assisting former club workers such as Klarys and Jasmine file lawsuits, she hoped to one day set a legal precedent for future cases and get investigators to better understand the intricacies of the subject.
For Klarys, the challenge could be particularly steep as the Uijeongbu Prosecutor’s Office has already declined to pick up the case, though she plans to appeal. The prosecutor said it remained “disputable” whether she had been forced into prostitution, saying her claim had been made on her own “internal assessment,” according to official records.
It also cited testimony from two former bar workers ― at least one of whom knew the plaintiff ― who said the allegations were false.
Park questioned whether the investigation had been conducted fairly, saying Klarys had been questioned while the accused ― the bar owner and promoter ― and others were present, creating a confrontational, intimidating environment. She also pointed out the witnesses were still employed by Klarys’ former employer and that he was likely exerting control over them.
Former bar worker Jasmine said she would press on in a bid to win support for her son, who she had after a relationship with a soldier she met on the job. The father has moved on without offering child support, she said.
She hoped to send a message to Filipinas back home over the visa. “Be careful to come here,” she said. “Don’t fall into the same situation as I did.”