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Visa Fraud and GI Brides Before South Korea’s Economic Boom

As long as there are vast economic disparities between countries, there will be people desperate (and unscrupulous) enough to do whatever it takes, including fraud and false marriages, to try to immigrate. Before its economic takeoff, South Korea in the 1970s and 80s was a major source of visa fraud and so-called GI brides, women who looked to escape the country by marrying a U.S. soldier stationed there. Others were “sold” by their families and others to soldiers to take them to the U.S. and were later forced into prostitution to pay off their debts when they landed on American soil. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 100,000 Korean women immigrated to the U.S. between 1950 and 1989 as GI brides.

ADST’s own Charles Stuart Kennedy was a career FSO who spent an extensive amount of time in Vietnam and South Korea and, as Consul General in Seoul, had first-hand experience of the extensive fraud that existed. Andrew Antippas was in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and ultimately joined the Foreign Service, where he was posted in South Korea, Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam; he discusses his attempts to address the issue of GI brides and his frustration when his efforts were thwarted. Kennedy was interviewed by Victor Wolf, Jr. in July 1986, while Antippas was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in July of 1994. Read more Moments from the consular section.


“Fraud was the name of the game in Korea”

Charles Stuart Kennedy

KENNEDY: Fraud was the name of the game in Korea. Koreans wanted to go to the United States. We had this peculiar law that disqualified all sorts of people, and the Koreans are very pragmatic people. For example, there was a section of the Immigration Law saying that an unmarried son 21 years of age could receive a high priority to get into the United States, however, if he were married, he couldn’t come into the United States for a long time, so they’d divorce. They’d turn around and come in, come back and remarry.

People would make up false labor certificates. You really couldn’t trust birth certificates. Relationships are very tangled in Korea at the best of circumstances, because often a family would, say, without males, sort of absorb a cousin’s male children into their family if they have enough money. That type of thing. Then there’s just plain outright fraud of families paying a G.I. or someone else to marry a daughter, supposedly, to go to the United States, where she would leave her so-called spouse, but maybe stay long enough to get quick citizenship, three years, then turn around and bring the rest of her family.

There were ways of getting into the United States if you had the cooperation of the Korean clerks within the visa function. When I was there, we had a major scandal. I was then concerned about what I felt were signs that there was fraud, but I didn’t know. I asked the Office of Diplomatic Security to send in a special team, which they did do, and we dismissed about four people. It was the first, I think, really major discovering of fraud in our embassy, but I found out, after I’d been gone for several years, just when I was doing this, a whole new fraud of fake petitions was being started, just when I felt I was cleaning out the shop.

I talked to my successors, and it’s unending. The Koreans wanted to get out, and their government was encouraging them to. There were a number of ways this was being done. One is just the normal way:  somebody (particularly a woman) goes to the United States, marries, and sends for her family.

With the GIs there, both wittingly and unwittingly, the Koreans’ families that wanted to go to the United States were not averse to using them. We’re really talking about– not the upper class, but the poor people who wanted to go to the United States and better themselves. In a country where women were treated, if not as cattle, damn close to it, one female member of the family, a sister of a large family, would be designated as the bride.

She would go, and it would be arranged. Either a GI would be paid off, an American soldier would be paid off, or just by normal attraction — she would go out and meet him, get married, with no real intention of continuing the relationship, or if she did it, it was a begrudging one.

So she had obtained American citizenship status within two or three years, and then sends for the rest of the family. This was, I’ve always felt, a perversion of the law, because the idea is to unite families. Well, in the Korean context, when a woman marries, she moves into somebody else’s family; she’s no longer really in close relation to her brothers and sisters, because they move on. They are not that tightly knit a family, particularly for women, to the rest of the family from which she’s born.

“American officers could be vulnerable to either gifts, sexual favors or the like”

There was a lot of what was really, if not illicit, it was almost illicit type immigration. Then we had a great deal of fraud. Koreans were willing to pay a great deal of money, and I had about four or five people fired after a big investigation in the consular section because of immigrant visa fraud. This is fraudulent petitions, fraudulent relationships.

These are Korean national employees. I was always worried about our American officers, because I was concerned that they might get too friendly. They could be vulnerable to either gifts, sexual favors or the like, because it was that type of society where both sexual favors and gifts were readily offered. I had no knowledge of any problems, but I certainly kept it in mind. With our Korean employees, it was mainly just payoffs. After I left, there has been a sort of revolving scandal. There are always people being fired because of the problem. On the other hand, I have to say that the Koreans make good citizens, hard-working people, and are really one of the successes.

Immigrants or perspective immigrants will often lie in order to get that visa and, in a way, fair enough. I think most of us would probably do the same, because it is a major benefit to most foreign families in countries such as Korea and Yugoslavia, to become an American citizen. Yet some of the young officers would just get absolutely indignant, and not only get indignant when they were lied to, but vindictive.

I spent a great deal of my time having to get these officers to understand it’s not really that awful. You treat it, you deal with the problem; you don’t say, “I understand,” and issue the visa. You may refuse the visa, but you have to keep it in perspective. One of my major jobs, I felt, was to act as a counselor or psychiatrist when a young officer is up against the pressures of immigration and what it does to him or her.

“Nobody can tell American citizens whom they can marry”

Andrew F. Antippas

ANTIPPAS: One of the things that really angered me was to discover, given my extended knowledge of Korea and my understanding of what had happened, having been there from the beginning, so to speak, was “GI brides” and the possibilities for fraud which this involved. Just before I went to Grenada, the “20/20” TV program had done a lengthy program on Korean prostitute rings working on the U. S. military in Korea. This wasn’t anything that I had invented.

When I got to Korea, I walked the “trench line” in the Consular Section and tried to figure out what I could do on the margins to change and improve things. One of the things that ticked me off was to see the “obvious” fraud that took place in GI marriages, when a young GI would come in with a woman 20 years older than he was who looked well-traveled and well worn. You knew perfectly well what had happened. Old soldiers knew very well what had happened. This annoyed me. It was one of my hobby horses. I thought that I would like to do something to change this situation.

The Immigration Attaché in Seoul during my stay there was sympathetic to my view, because he, of course, had to approve the petitions which the GI’s were executing on behalf of their Korean “brides.” We would make inquiries at the U.S.- Korean Command. There were certain areas and certain centers of interest where the Korean Command would have liked to see us improve that situation.

First of all, you had to recognize that nobody can tell American citizens whom they can marry. Changing the circumstances under which GI’s met these women is really beyond the Theater Commander. This is a Washington-level problem. However, as I looked at the problem, what I discovered was that, given the way that the American military were operating in Korea, we had the phenomenon of “homesteaders.” That is, there were officers and enlisted personnel who spent a large part of their careers in South Korea. In many cases they were married to Koreans and really had a vested interest in that country. They kind of specialized in Korea.

Among the offshoots we had of this problem at this time was black marketing and currency speculation. We’re talking now about 1984, before the economic “takeoff” happened in South Korea. There still was a thriving black market for commissary and PX merchandise. On the black market a banana would cost you a dollar. You would have fights between the Korean and the American wives in the commissary over bunches of bananas. I know that my wife once threatened to belt somebody over an issue like this. The Provost Marshal when I told him said, “No, don’t let her do that!” There were scandals of this kind. I felt that the American Army wasn’t looking very good. There were prostitution rings.

“The women were more or less forced into prostitution”

I did a long-term research study of the problem, pulling in all of the information I could obtain from INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and other sources about what was happening to a lot of these wives when they went to the United States, particularly if they remained in the U. S. military, and the kind of Korean communities that were springing up outside of military cantonment areas. I also checked law enforcement reports.

These wives weren’t really involved in drug trafficking, but they were involved in large-scale trafficking in commissary goods — fur coats, jewelry, and electronic equipment. This was a time when a Foreign Service employee could sell his property in Korea, because local Korean industry wasn’t producing merchandise of this kind. They started doing that a couple of years later, and after that, there was no way you could get rid of your old stereo set. Remember, before the Korean economy took off, you could still sell your old stereo, buy new equipment at the PX, and refurbish everything. This was in 1984. Things changed a great deal in a couple of years.

There was a lot of trade going on in these Korean communities around the military cantonment areas in the U.S. It was very clear that there were major prostitution rings as well — not necessarily because the Korean women went there as prostitutes. They were more or less forced into prostitution. They borrowed money so that the U. S. immigration visa “fixer” could “hire” the GI to marry them. They went to the United States with him but they owed money to the ring. Very frequently, the GI would drop them. Even the GIs who married these women for love had second thoughts, once they were married. A lot of these Korean women were just dumped.

There were gangs called the “Korean Killers” and others. As I say, they stayed away from narcotics, as far as I could tell — unlike the Chinese, Thai, and maybe the Vietnamese gangs. The Koreans were a little more circumspect, but it was very clear that they had very sophisticated prostitution rings operating. A great source of supply was these Korean women who were marrying GIs and who were subsequently jettisoned.

I felt that I was on firm ground to be pushing this as an issue, from a strategic point of view. I worked very hard on this matter. I managed to get the Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army on my side, a major general. The first Chief of Staff was not interested. His replacement was different. I think that he and his wife were born again Christians, or something like that. They had very high moral standards. He was much more cooperative. Once I got him on my side, I found that the rest of his staff was cooperative.

I found, for example, that senior military chaplains were very cooperative. The junior chaplains — the majors and the captains — didn’t seem to care very much. The older, “bull” colonels among the chaplains understood what we were trying to do.

Dealing with this problem was an interesting exercise. It involved my going on AFK [Armed Forces in Korea] TV and giving talks with the Immigration Attaché, saying what was involved and trying to get the Korean Command to change the regulations under which people were “counseled” about the implications of getting married. I think that the culmination of this whole effort took place when the Chief of Staff of the Army came to Korea….

“I thought that this situation was giving the Army a bad name”

I gave him a copy of a long dispatch that I had written to the Department on the nature of the problem, mentioning all of the INS reports of what was going on outside the American Army cantonments in the States and all of that. I tried to make the point to the Chief of Staff that I was a very good friend of the American Army….I said that I thought that this situation was giving the Army a bad name….

Of course, as you could predict, the reaction of the Chief of Staff was defensive. He said, in effect, “Well, I guess we have to do something to make our soldiers less ‘masculine,'” or a wiseacre comment about “too much ‘testosterone’ or something like that. Anyway, the briefing didn’t go off too well. There was obviously very little that the Chief of Staff could do. Washington was not prepared to say…

They were told not to get married. However, one of the interesting aspects of this matter was that my thinking continued to evolve in this connection. As I looked at the records available in the Consular Section, one of the things that concerned me was where in hell all of these Koreans were coming from in the United States. Based on the records available in the Consular Section, there were some hundreds of thousands of Koreans who had gotten to the U. S. illegally. Even if you factored in the number of those who had “overstayed” on visitors’ visas, it still didn’t add up. These Koreans were in Los Angeles, New York, and every place else. They were springing up all over the place.

Then from the CIA reporting from the “Blue House” [Presidential Mansion], it was clear that the Chun Doo Hwan (at left) administration was encouraging the movement of Koreans to the U. S. The view of the Korean Government was to encourage emigration, because this was how to get rid of protesters. But there also was a reverse benefit. There would be large communities of Koreans in the U. S. who were amenable to the Korean administration’s way of thinking. They thought that this was a good development.

I had decided that the prostitution issue was worth fighting for because it was clear to me that if we didn’t “tighten up,” in some fashion, we’d have a continuous leak of Koreans into the U.S.

I continued to look for ways to slow down the visa trafficking. I was trying to do something because it was clear that there was an absolute flood of Koreans heading for the countries south of the U. S. – Mexican border. They were making it into the United States in that way, particularly from Mexico.

In fact, there was a Korean movie issued in 1987, called, “Deep Blue Night” (see photo above). It was about a Korean illegal immigrant who goes to Los Angeles through Mexico and recounts his shenanigans with some women there. This was quite scandalous at the time it came out in Seoul in 1985, I think, because there was a lot of nudity. I said, “This thing is a training film on how to get people into the United States.” I put in a lot of effort, trying to persuade my consular colleagues to tighten up their visa requirements. .

Q: When the U. S. Army Chief of Staff turned down your efforts to do something about GI “marriages,” did that pretty well end what you were doing? 

ANTIPPAS: We could only try to do something on the margins. I subsequently received a note from George Barbis on the stationery of the Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army. I still have that note somewhere. He referred to some kind of scandal regarding Korean prostitutes and said, “You tried to tell us about this some time ago, and here it is in the news.” It was sort of a moral victory, I thought.