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South Korean prostitutes sit in their shop in 2004 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
A group of women in South Korea sued their own government in June, alleging that it trained them to serve as “patriots” or “civilian diplomats” in the 1960s and 1970s. Their real job: work as prostitutes near American military bases. The women were tested regularly to make sure they didn’t have sexually-transmitted diseases, and were locked up until they were healthy again if they did, they said.
It’s an uncomfortable part of the U.S. military’s long history with prostitution. The world’s oldest profession has long catered to U.S. troops, whether at home or abroad. But the issue is getting new scrutiny in South Korea, where the top U.S. commander, Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, recently forbid all military personnel under his command from paying an employee in an “establishment” for his or her time.
The general said in a memorandum to his troops that not only is prostitution banned, but that service members are not allowed to pay a fee to play darts or billiards with a local employee or to buy them a drink or souvenir in exchange for their company.
“Service members are often encouraged to buy overpriced ‘juice’ drinks in exchange for the company of these women, or to pay a fee to obtain the company of an employee who is then relieved of their work shift (commonly referred to as “bar-fining” or “buying a day off”),” Scaparrotti said. “The governments of the Republic of Korea, the United States, and the Republic of the Philippines have linked these practices with prostitution and human trafficking.”
The effort comes as the Pentagon also attempts to crack down on another problem: sexual assault. Defense officials said in May that they recorded thousands of reports of sexual assault last year, and that the problem is much more widespread than commanders had realized.
Scaparrotti’s memo does not mention the push to stop sexual assault in the ranks, but it says he expects service members to respect “the dignity of others” at all times. Paying for companionship, he said, “encourages the objectification of women, reinforces sexist attitudes, and is demeaning to all human beings” — themes that have come up in the attempt to stop sexual assault, as well.
The general’s prohibition is part of a broader effort to crack down on “juicy bars” in South Korea. They’ve existed for years, with many of the women working in them said to be Filipino victims of human trafficking — modern-day sex slaves.
The connection between the U.S. military and prostitution goes far beyond that, however. In one high-profile example, several Navy officers and employees were charged last year with accepting prostitutes as part of a major bribery scandal. The women were furnished by the Malaysian tycoon, “Fat” Leonard Francis, in exchange for information that he allegedly used to defraud the U.S. government of millions of dollars, authorities said.
Francis, the CEO of Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a shipping firm that at one point had more than $200 million in contracts with the Navy, has denied the charges. Others already have pleaded guilty, including a retired Navy officer, an agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Francis’ cousin.
That case had connections to Malaysia, Singapore Japan and Indonesia, among other locations. But it involved much more money than the tawdry transactions that have been a part of military life for decades.
During Vietnam War, for example, prostitution was common. Infamously depicted in the 1987 movie “Full Metal Jacket,” it played a role in creating a generation of half-Americans in Vietnam who are now mostly in their 40s, according to a Global Post report in 2011.
In World War II, posters warned U.S. soldiers in Europe that “you can’t beat the Axis if you get VD.” Things may have been even worse in Japan, where American officials allowed an official brothel system for the use of U.S. troops until 1946, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur shut it down.
“Sadly, we police had to set up sexual comfort stations for the occupation troops,”an official history of one Japanese police department says, according to a 2007 Associated Press report. “The strategy was, through the special work of experienced women, to create a breakwater to protect regular women and girls.”
More recently in Japan, a network of massage parlors and other businesses offer a variety of sexual services that are legal in the country. They got unexpected attention last year when Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of the city of Osaka, said that he had suggested to a top commander at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma that his troops should make better use of Japan’s sex industry. Doing so, the mayor said, would help them control their sexual urges.
The comments were condemned by a number of other Japanese officials, and prompted U.S. officials to underscore that visiting a sex worker was punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
At home, a female soldier testified in June at Fort Hood in Texas that she was recruited by a higher-ranking service member, Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, to serve as a prostitute for other men on base. The solider was granted immunity for her testimony, and said she was 20-years-old and struggling financially when he asked her to serve as an escort for other enlisted soldiers and civilians.