The Pentagon is investigating whether U.S. military patrols in South Korea have provided security for servicemen visiting bars and clubs staffed by women forced into prostitution.
The investigation centers on South Korea's so-called camp towns, commercial districts that spring up around U.S. military bases and cater to servicemen.
Offering the promise of legitimate work, entrepreneurs there have allegedly lured women from Russia and the Philippines, taken their passports, and pressured or coerced them into prostitution.
Some observers say the servicemen play a key role in encouraging the trafficking of women to South Korea. "They are the demand and the women are the supply," said Katharine Moon, a political scientist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the author of a book about U.S. military members and South Korean prostitution.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who requested the Pentagon inquiry, is especially concerned about the role of U.S. "courtesy patrols," an informal version of military police, who have been filmed standing watch as servicemen socialized with the women in bars.
"When American soldiers acting in their official capacity effectively condone the practice of soliciting the services of trafficked persons, the efforts of Congress, the State Department and other U.S. government agencies are severely undermined," Smith and 12 other lawmakers wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in May.
A Pentagon spokeswoman confirmed that the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office is investigating the allegations. Nick Manetto, a spokesman for Smith, said the Pentagon inspectors left Thursday for a two-week fact-finding trip to South Korea.
The Inspector General's Office will eventually examine conditions around U.S. military bases worldwide, Manetto said.
For now, investigators are expected to examine conditions around Camp Casey, an Army base in Tongduchon, about 40 miles north of Seoul; Osan Air Base, 48 miles south of the demilitarized zone on the border with North Korea; and other installations.
Smith asked for the inquiry after an Ohio television station aired a hidden-camera broadcast last summer of U.S. service members at the clubs. A reporter from Fox television affiliate WJW in Cleveland had traveled to the camp town around Camp Casey, where he recorded servicemen socializing with the women in bars and military courtesy patrols standing watch nearby.
Some servicemen talked openly about the plight of the mostly Russian and Filipino women there. The passports of many have been taken away, making them virtual slaves of the bar owners.
The reporter, Tom Merriman, is a former Ohio deputy attorney general who once prosecuted cases in the Cleveland area against Korean massage parlors where women worked as prostitutes. "I always had an interest in how these women got here," Merriman said.
When he became a TV news reporter, Merriman got the chance to find out. The trail led him to the South Korean camp towns.
Many of the Korean women who ended up in Ohio had come to the United States with U.S. servicemen whom they had met in clubs. The servicemen sometimes paid as much as $3,000 to club owners for the women's freedom, Merriman said.
In the United States, the relationships or marriages would fall apart, and the women would begin working in massage parlors to survive, he said.
But when Merriman went to South Korea last summer, he found that most of the women in the camp town clubs are no longer Korean. Instead, they are Russians and Filipinos lured with promises of good jobs, then forced to work as bar hosts and prostitutes.
"In many cases, their travel documents are taken away by their labor broker, their trafficker, their bar owner, their manager, or whoever," said Moon, who last visited the camp towns in May.
Technically, the women are hosts who sell expensive glasses of juice or alcohol to the servicemen. But because most of the proceeds from the beverage sales go to the bar owner, leaving the women with little money, they "are sometimes forced, sometimes pressured, to sell sex," Moon said.
Some clubs also have back rooms for privacy with the women. The back rooms, of course, cost extra. Tongduchon's sex trade is also well advertised on the Internet.
"Short time (30 minutes) with a hot phillipina . . . will run you about 60-80 dollars," says one Web site. (The misspelling is in the original.)
In October, the Philippine government filed a lawsuit against a South Korean brothel owner for forcing 11 Filipino women into prostitution. The women had entered the country on visas authorizing them to work in the arts and show business.
"My gosh! It really appears that our job here will be prostitute," one of the women wrote after she arrived in Tongduchon, according to lawsuit documents cited by the Los Angeles Times.
According to U.S. government reports, at least 700,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked worldwide each year. That includes 50,000 people trafficked into the United States to work in sweatshops, brothels and farm fields.
Smith was the lead sponsor of a 2000 law to combat international human trafficking. The law increased penalties in the United States for bringing people into the country and using force or intimidation to keep them at work. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act also established a State Department office to monitor and combat trafficking networks worldwide.
The idea that U.S. military members could be helping trafficking networks flourish while other arms of the American government are working to stamp them out is unacceptable, Smith said.
Courtesy patrols are an informal version of military police, set up to "monitor the safety and behavior of military personnel patronizing establishments in and around the military installation," Army Secretary Thomas Whitesaid in a June letter to Smith.
White denied that the Army knowingly facilitated the trafficking of women and thanked Smith for bringing the matter to his attention.
The patrols are supposed to keep servicemen in line and prevent assaults and terrorist attacks against them. The Fox report showed uniformed courtesy patrols guarding areas around the clubs while servicemen partied with the hosts.
Military regulations prohibit servicemen from entering houses of prostitution and require them to obey the laws of host nations. Prostitution is illegal in South Korea.