September 26th, 2002 | Published in Uncategorized
I did a year in South Korea (more popularly referred to as “the RoK” among soldiers) from ’94 to ’95. I was located in the south, and this article says the worst abuses it reports are occuring in the north near Osan AFB and Camp Casey, but it’s impossible to not remember the bar girls and the thinly masked prostitution involving $10 bar drinks or GI’s who forked over weekly “rent” for their “girlfriends” to the ahjuma (aunt) who ran the bar.
At the time, yes, it seemed like a mostly-consensual (economically, even) set of relationships, and a small dose of cultural relativism whisked away the last of any concerns you might have. A few weeks on post watching formerly reasonable people losing their minds over not having a girlfriend made it seem like a positively benign thing. I was best friends with a popular co-worker and spent a few nights ignoring incessant pounding on my door because a hormone-crazed redneck from Texas had it in his head that I was keeping her from him. If I would have had the presence of mind to rent him a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have had to worry about the beating I would have gotten if I hadn’t made it a point to avoid him when he was drunk.
Facetiousness aside, I had it easy. Camp Carroll boasted a mere 10 or 12 to 1 ratio of male to female soldiers. Up north, that ratio changes dramatically as the nature of the units changes from support and combat support to infantry and armor. All those people spend a year in a place where they don’t know the language, can’t even phoneticize the names of streets, shops, or even junkfood wrappers they encounter outside the gates, and don’t have much of anything else around they’re familiar with. Saying it “sucks” is an understatement. Some personalities look at that sort of situation as an adventure, others think it’s a living hell.
I thought it was an adventure for about nine months. I made friends with a KATUSA (that’s a Korean soldier who serves in a US military unit), got to see some interesting places with him, and then promptly lost the friendship as he decided US soldiers were a scourge thanks mainly to a series of high-profile incidents involving violence between soldiers and Korean civilians. A month of being locked down on post and forbidden to leave at night culminated in Corporal Kim telling me he just wanted us all gone…. all of us… now. Then he stopped talking to me.
So around month nine, it wasn’t an adventure anymore… it was just a hostile place far from home where you were only guardedly welcome in the area right next to post, and only because you were spending. That’s not a relationship unusual to Army posts in the U.S. either, for that matter, but add in the language and cultural gap and the sense on the part of the youngest in that society that the US is keeping both Koreas from overcoming their problems and perhaps even creating the problem it’s there to solve, and you’ve got something that a half hour drive to the nearest non-Army town won’t solve.
The shame of the LA Times story isn’t that the market is filling a tangible need that probably keeps the powderkeg that is a locked-and-cocked military unit in a dangerous place from exploding… the shame is that, as usual, the scum are filling the need because there’s no legitimate, legal way to do it. The generals are “shocked! shocked!” and merely, as a result, contributing to the dynamic that perpetuates the problem, turning a puritanical blind eye on the whole thing until a reporter from the LA Times comes nosing around, at which point they’ll “get right on that” and drive the whole thing underground until people remember to turn a blind eye again, then the scum resurface and resume business as usual.