Import business trades on women/Growing Korean prostitution network in U.S. moves into suburbs
SHARON COHEN Associated Press
THU 12/25/1986 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section 3, Page 19, NO STAR Edition
It's an import business that deals in deception, that thrives on lust and greed.
The commodity is sex. The imports are Korean women. Profits often depend on a marriage license.
Police believe thousands of people and millions of dollars are involved in a growing Korean prostitution network that operates like a modern slave ring, moving women across the United States and trading them like cattle.
Some of the trade has its beginnings in sham marriages - U.S. servicemen who meet and marry Korean women, some already prostitutes, in their homeland, authorities say.
Experts think some men are paid, others are duped by women eager to enter the United States, where sex for sale is more lucrative.
Still others, they say, are victims of another sort - men with solid, loving marriages who lose their wives to recruiters who work near military bases in America and entice the Koreans into prostitution with promises of wealth in seemingly innocent jobs.
The problem isn't new. What has changed, authorities say, is its scope and sophistication - expanding from big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Houston and the Seattle-Tacoma area to quiet suburbs.
"We had no idea what a massive organization it really is," said William Dwyer, police chief of Farmington Hills, Mich., a Detroit suburb where 17 people, all but one Korean, were arrested in raids on five health spas.
"It's just as big as the Mafia," said Neal Leonard, a vice officer in the Houston Police Department and an expert on Asian organized crime. "People look at it and think it's just a little prostitution. That's just baloney."
Some Korean-American leaders complain they've been tarred by the actions of a few. Others deny such a network exists and say police exaggerate the problem.
"Every race, a small number have got a problem," said Yong Moon, president of the Korean Association in Junction City, Kan., next to Fort Riley. "I say it's less than 1 percent."
In Junction City, about 400 people, mostly Koreans, met this spring to denounce as irresponsible and overblown reports about local Koreans involved in prostitution. Korean leaders urged anyone involved in illegal activity to stop.
Detroit area Koreans have placed ads condemning prostitution in The Korea Times, a Chicago-based newspaper.
Police are quick to say only a fraction of Koreans in the United States are involved, but concern has heightened, prompting the FBI in Kansas City and Detroit, the Michigan State Police, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and local authorities in several states to take a harder look.
The INS set up a task force this spring to investigate "organized and coordinated efforts by Koreans to enter into this country and engage in prostitution," said senior special agent Mark Riordan. "The way they're doing it is through fradulent marriages, we believe."
"We believe there's a network, loosely knit," Riordan said. "We do see the girls systematically moving throughout the country - San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Cleveland. We think there's millions and millions of dollars being generated."
Riordan said the INS was investigating reports that "marriage brokers" had paid servicemen $500 to $10,000 each to wed Korean women so they could enter the United States, and then get divorced.
If resources permit, the INS plans to interview hundreds of men who married Korean women while in the military in the past three years and have since divorced, he said.
The Defense Department will help locate military personnel, said spokesman Jim Turner, but will await INS results "to determine if there is a problem."
INS efforts are geared primarily toward the Army because soldiers make up about 75 percent of the more than 40,000 U.S. military in Korea. The Army says about 20,000 soldiers in Korea return to the United States each year.
In 1985, 2,777 soldiers married Korean women; in the first half of this year the number was 1,044, said the Army, which has no reports of GIs being disciplined for taking part in sham marriages.
However, the Army now requires U.S. soldiers in Korea who want to marry to sign an affidavit saying they understand it is illegal to knowingly engage in fraudulent unions. The change was prompted by discussions with the U.S. Embassy in Korea and the INS, the Army said, adding it requires counseling sessions and premarital investigations of fiancees' backgrounds.
Maj. Bruce Bell, an Army spokesman in Washington, said he knew of no other Army location where the affidavit is required, except in West Germany, where GIs marrying local women must sign non-military documents attesting to the validity of the marriages.
The INS also has received a few reports of sham marriages involving Air Force personnel, said Riordan, who met officials of both services last December in Korea.
The Air Force said it had court-martialed three men for charges involving sham marriages and black marketeering - two recently and one in 1982. All were disciplined and penalties ranged up to 10 years in a military prison, said spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Jannette.
Neither the Army or Air Force said it considered sham marriages a significant problem.
Nonetheless, local police reports and information from ex-servicemen gathered over many years indicate about 90 percent of Korean women arrested in the United States on prostitution charges are current or former wives of servicemen, Riordan said.
Not all these women planned to become prostitutes when arriving in the United States.
Sometimes, a woman eager to emigrate, but unwilling to wait years for a visa, will approach a broker to find a GI husband, Leonard said. The broker tells the women she can pay her fee by working six months in the United States. Some know sex is the currency. Others don't.
In other cases, authorities say, women are recruited from towns near military bases in the United States by Koreans who befriend newly arrived brides, lend them money and sometimes mock their husbands' salaries when the newcomers are struggling to make ends meet.
Sometimes Korean women with no military ties who have immigrated to America to rejoin families also fall prey, authorities say.
Promising a better life, the recruiters entice these women with offers of thousands of dollars a month for work in other cities as masseuses or waitresses. Many take the bait and leave husbands and families.
Some might ask, "How can you fall for a line like that?" said Junction City Detective A.B. Farrow. "These girls, when they're told by their own people, they're assuming they can place some trust in them. They get a rude awakening."
The women, who often speak little English and have few job skills, have borrowed heavily and accepted plane tickets to get to new jobs. Room and board are added to mounting IOUs.
Some become virtual prisoners, turning tricks 16 hours a day, sleeping and working in the same room, never seeing sunlight.
"They're like indentured servants," said Ross Herberholz, of the Pierce County, Wash., sheriff's department.
They travel from city to city - pawns in an active barter of human flesh. Some may be sent to a new town to excuse a debt, or Leonard said, "They might trade two fair looking girls for one good looking girl."
Often, they move to keep ahead of the law. A prostitute arrested twice in Washington may surface in Alaska or Texas, Herberholz said. One woman arrested in Farmington Hills was picked up in Houston four years earlier, police said.
Police say it's hard to gauge the extent of the problem because women use bogus names and prostitution usually is a misdemeanor, not recorded in police computer banks.
But the frequent movement of these women, Herberholz said, is evidence "they've got to be connected. They've got to know somebody."
Police also say phone records seized in raids in Michigan and Texas listed calls to Korea and similar prostitution fronts across the country.
Some, particularly madams, have made fast fortunes. One Korean woman charged with prostitution in the San Antonio area had a $400,000 home, three massage parlors and a $2 million estate when she died a few years ago, Leonard said.
Four Houston massage parlors raided in 1985 had netted nearly $8 million in 3 1/2 years, he estimated.
Despite new attention to this problem, authorities say many elements remain a mystery, including how the network operates.
"We have no proof, it's highly organized with a kingpin," Leonard said. "It's like a loose-knit organization. It might be several families."
Business ownership changes hands frequently, women arrested skip town, and prostitution is so low key, there are few complaints.
Authorities also find themselves bedeviled by a conspiracy of silence fostered by ethnic loyalties - and intimidation.
Many Koreans "do not trust law enforcement," said Charles Woodard, police investigator in Killeen next to Fort Hood. "They're afraid to bring charges. These people will not come to talk to us."
Said Farrow: "It's like any organized crime. It's difficult to get into, difficult to break. It takes years."
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