Protests over U.S. base’s ban on 15 hostess barsA week ago, about 150 members of an association of owners of foreign tourist facilities and businesses in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, gathered in front of the U.S. Osan K-55 Air Base and staged a protest.
They claim that their livelihoods have been threatened.
The U.S. military has designated some of their businesses, all of them hostess bars, as off-limit areas to their soldiers, causing them huge losses as most of their revenue is derived from the nearby soldiers.
They held signs reading “Stop the ban!” and “Don’t threaten our livelihood!” Some shaved their heads as a symbol of protest.
According to the association, on June 13, the K-55 camp designated 15 of 50 hostess bars, including seven on the Rodeo Street of Sinjang-dong, Pyeongtaek, as off-limits for offering illegal prostitution.
They also said that the U.S. military called the owners into the camp for investigation, questioning them in an interrogation room without legal representatives.
Under the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) regulations, at least one Korean police officer must be present when the U.S. military questions Koreans or the investigation must be carried out through Korean police.
They claimed that this is a clear SOFA violation and that their human rights have been abused by the U.S. military.
But the K-55 camp officers told a different story to the Korea JoongAng Daily yesterday.
Park Young-hee, a spokesman for the K-55 camp, said they first ran an internal investigation into soldiers who were suspected of paying for sex in the region. They then found these 15 bars were offering prostitution to those soldiers.
“We found that some of the bars abused their hostesses, who are mostly from the Philippines,” said Park. “We heard that the owners have taken the hostesses’ passports and don’t pay wages on time. We can’t say whether it is true or not, but we just limited the access to those places because we didn’t want our soldiers to step into places that look like they have problems.”
Regarding the illegal investigation issue, Park said, “The owners wanted to speak with us first. They said that it isn’t fair to designate their places as off-limit areas without listening to their opinions. So we requested that they come to the camp and they responded to the call. It isn’t true that we summoned them compulsorily.”
In the past few days, the business owners have claimed that they had to comply with the U.S. military’s call for the investigation as their businesses heavily rely on the soldiers.
As the rally continued for about a week and the investigation process became a hot issue, Patrick McKenzie, the commander of the 51st Fighter Wing at the Osan K-55 Air Base, stated that they will consider revising the process for the off-limit measure when he meets Kim Sun-ki, mayor of the Pyeongtaek city government, on Tuesday.
At the meeting, McKenzie pledged that they will make sure that they will run questioning sessions with at least one official from the city government and one from the local police and all sessions will be held in a place outside the camp.
But McKenzie said the ban in the area will continue temporarily to secure the safety of soldiers because those merchants are still staging a rally every day.
BY KWON SANG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]