Morale: The War Against Vice In South Korea


August 19, 2014: For decades American military commanders in South Korea have been trying to curb alcoholism and other bad habits among the U.S. troops stationed there. Since the 1990s this has meant imposing more and more restrictions on the purchase and use of alcohol by their troops. The latest effort is a new rule by the U.S. Air Force which bans new air force personnel arriving in South Korea from buying or drinking alcohol for the first 30 days they are there. The American air force personnel also have to obey a curfew (10 PM to 5 AM) and warnings to stay away from local prostitutes. The air force new arrivals also undergo special training about alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct.  This is all part of a two decade trend in the U.S. military vigorously encouraging virtue and banning vice (and accompanying crime and poor discipline).

The South Korean government has helped out by making it more difficult for young Filipino women to get visas to enter South Korea as "entertainers." The number of Filipinas, working at hundreds of "juicy bars" outside American military bases has sharply declined since 2009. The South Korean moves are part of efforts to halt human trafficking, for sexual purposes, of Filipinas. But most of the Filipino women knew what they were getting into, as Filipinas have been coming to South Korea since the 1990s. The lure is big money. The problem is the money isn't there anymore. Most of the American troops have been withdrawn and now U.S. military personnel remaining can bring their families to South Korea. Thus there are even fewer potential customers.

South Korea is no longer the sexual paradise for American troops it once was. For half a century duty in South Korea was officially considered a hardship tour. The one bright spot was the inexpensive and widely available prostitution. This was a dirty little secret but troops who ended up in South Korea quickly found out about it, and enthusiastically enjoyed themselves. No more. Starting in 2006 the South Korean government began cracking down on prostitutes, arresting thousands. The U.S. military declared over a thousand bars and brothels off limits and all but outlawed access to prostitutes for American troops. Hundreds of U.S. troops were arrested and punished for patronizing prostitutes.

The sexual paradise angle began to fade in the 1990s, when fewer Korean women were willing to work as prostitutes. That's because there were more, and better paying, jobs available. Those women who did want to sell sex now preferred to do it for a higher price to well-paid Korean men. In response to this the brothel owners began importing women, mainly from Russia and the Philippines. This led to charges that foreign women were being forced into prostitution and this led to a call for laws, and police action, to deal with it. In 2004 laws against prostitution for foreign troops were passed in South Korea and American military commanders cooperated by forcing their troops to comply.

The troops were not happy with this new situation, despite Department of Defense efforts to provide other distractions. The brass have responded by offering more educational programs, late night sports leagues, more movies, and religious activities. The troops are not amused.

The last time such a major “it’s good for you” change in the military regulations was made was in 1914, when the navy outlawed alcoholic beverages on American warships. The sailors have been grumbling about this ever since and pointing out that other navies, especially the British, continue to enjoy their booze on board, without any decline in effectiveness. But the rule has never been changed (although it is frequently bent), and the fear is that an anti-prostitution rule would not only get bent all out of shape but be a major headache to enforce as well. It’s a lot easier to keep whiskey off warships than it is to keep young soldiers away from young women.

At the same time, the U.S. forces in South Korea have shrunk from over 100,000 troops in the early 1950s (after the war ended), to 25,000. These days the well-equipped South Korea forces are believed capable of handling any invasion from the north. At the same time, communist North Korea has suffered famine and economic collapse since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the end of Russian and Chinese subsidies that propped up the mismanaged economy. The North Korean military has, especially in the last decade, declined because of fuel shortages, which limited training. There hasn't been much money for new equipment either and the current stuff is falling apart. The North Koreans are still a threat but South Korea is more worried about the human and fiscal fallout from a collapse of the North Korean government than a reunification of Korea. That chaos will be paid for by the newly affluent taxpayers of South Korea and policed initially by South Korean troops. The small American force will, as always, be there mainly to guarantee U.S. reinforcements if the Chinese march into South Korea via North Korea or if North Koreans comes across the border and get lucky.





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