Lee Eun-ju, a loan officer at a savings bank, was shocked to see a huge red light district, known as Yongjugol, right next to a police station and military base at this border town when she came here to check the appraisal of a house.
A pimp showed up in place of the owner of a two-story house registered as a residential building as she asked why barely-dressed women in four-inch heels were standing behind a glass window as if on sale at a supermarket.
She made it clear that no loan could be approved for the brothel, but wondered how prostitution, which is illegal here, could be so openly practiced.
“It seems obvious that the police have turned a blind eye to the local sex industry, especially for servicemen wanting to buy sex, possibly due to bribery or undue pressure from decision-makers,” she said.
Yongjugol operates virtually around the clock. About 10 establishments are open for business during the daytime and some 60 operate at night, most of which continue to lure customers until 6 a.m.
Some military commanders in border areas prefer to have brothels like Yongjugol near their frontline units as this helps reduce the transmission of disease and debts of servicemen, said a deputy defense minister on condition of anonymity.
“While I was in active duty in a frontline unit, I realized that many of my servicemen, especially non-commissioned officers, were in serious debt simply because they could only buy sex after paying more than 500,000 won ($445) for drinks at bars within their limited travel area,” he said.
“So I extended the travel limits to a town with a large brothel where they could buy safe sex for less than 100,000 won after finding myself unable to relieve their debts and stress of serving in an area with hardly any recreational or cultural facilities.”
Prostitutes at brothels receive regular medical checkups to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as herpes and AIDS, and are instructed to use condoms.
Those who secretly sell sex at “singing rooms,” “kiss rooms,” “phone rooms,” “massage parlors” and “room salons” are believed to be more vulnerable to STDs.
He argued that the government should make more efforts to provide an environment where troops can relieve their stress by engaging in leisure and learning activities by constructing facilities such as indoor swimming pools, gyms and libraries.
Several servicemen could be spotted playing billiards, drinking beer and wandering around Yongjugol in casual dress on the weekend, though the number of civilians substantially outnumbered them.
Yoo Shin-soon, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and serves as head of the Yongjugol reconstruction committee, estimated that about 5 to 10 percent of the clients at the brothels are servicemen.
A 1st Infantry Division sergeant on two-day leave said Sunday that it was practically risk free to go for sex in Yongjugol as long as he was dressed in civilian attire.
He said many conscripted soldiers keep civilian clothes at their barracks, which they are not supposed to do, to elude the surveillance of military police when they leave.
“I and many of my fellow soldiers go to Yongjugol as it is famous for excellent services at a reasonable price with a lady of your choice,” the sergeant said asking for anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Lt. Col. Hwang Tae-ho, head of the military police at the 1st Division, admitted that his 100-strong team is not authorized to ask the identity of non-uniformed persons, nor supervise them.
“There was no single case of 1st Division troops found to have bought sex in Paju, including Yongjugol, over the past six years,” he said. “We have yet to proactively deter the practice of soliciting illegal sexual services among servicemen largely because we don’t have authority to crack down on brothels.”
He said his patrol team passes by Yongjugol in a car after sunset once a day on the weekend, but faces difficulties in preventing soldiers from entering the red light district as none of them are wearing uniforms.
Song Ki-seob, head of the prostitution crackdown team at Paju Police Station, said that the police found a total of 22 cases of illegal sexual services offered last year in his jurisdiction including eight cases involving Yongjugol.
He estimated that some 300 prostitutes make a living in Yongjugol, one of the largest brothel towns in Korea, down from 600 when prostitution was not prohibited.
He added that there is another area near Paju District Court, but only about six brothels operate there these days.
Choi Young-bae, a chief inspector at a substation of Paju Police Station, said that it was practically impossible for his team to crack down on brothels without the help of reinforcements and undercover agents.
“Having only three to four police officers working each shift, we are too shorthanded to crack down on prostitution,” he said. “Once pimps close the glass windows and roll down a metal shutter upon our arrival, we cannot do anything since we are not authorized to break in or destroy private property.”
After getting advice from Song and Choi’s teams, this reporter stayed parked in front of a brothel in Yongjugol from 1 a.m. through 6 a.m. Sunday.
A number of patrons, most of whom came by car, entered and left the brothel with four prostitutes and a female pimp in her 50s.
I contacted the police at 3:16 a.m. after seeing a man wearing a black jogging suit with a flat top go upstairs with one of the four ladies, but had to ask them to return to the station at 3:25 a.m.
This was because the lady who went upstairs abruptly came downstairs alone, possible by being tipped off about the imminent police crackdown.
I could not see the man wearing the sportswear come downstairs before dawn, nor any other customers entering there after the incident.
“Our chance of catching them red-handed is zero.” Choi explained.
He said all eight previous cases were possible because patrons of the brothels reported their wrongdoings to the police in the course of complaining of unsatisfactory or overpriced services.
“Quite a few people are still ignorant that prostitution is illegal and that they face punishment upon admitting that they paid for sex,” he said.
Another sergeant belonging to the 12th Regiment of the 1st Division said that senior military officers appear to be reluctant to eradicate the buying of sex among servicemen.
“Ranking officers tend to bend rules for their own sake. They ask conscripts to serve as a batman, which is prohibited, mobilize them to maintain illegally-built tennis courts and force them to deal with confidential documents without giving them a security clearance,” he said.
“The military should be all about discipline and abiding principles, but it appears that many officers ignore violations of the law and regulations, including prostitution, as long as they feel safe to do so.”
Kim Jong-soo, head of the Yongjugol brothel committee, said that the majority of pimps, landlords and prostitutes have no option but to continue their illegal activities.
“Prostitution was the main source of money coming into Paju when American troops were stationed here.
The town thrived because of us,” he said. “Most of the people running brothels here are in debt and have no survival skills.
All we demand is for the authorities to leave us alone until reconstruction kicks off so that we can save enough money to stand on our own feet.”
Last year, 70 percent of people in Yongjugol agreed to a reconstruction project, but many remain skeptical about the envisioned plan as neither the Paju local government nor the central government is willing to provide financial compensation for relocations.