SEOUL -- Police are investigating nine South Koreans for their role in a ring that collected discarded Meals, Ready to Eat after U.S. military exercises and sold them on the black market. South Korean police say members of the group, which included a 76-year-old man, could face prosecution not for stealing the MREs, but rather for peddling food that had been stored in unsanitary conditions. "They didn't consider consumers' health as long as they could make money," an officer with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said this week, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. Some of the confiscated MREs were found in a storage unit near Pohang that had no air conditioning, according to police.
The group, which included several contractors who worked on U.S. Forces Korea bases, picked up unused MREs that had been thrown away or earmarked for burning after military exercises and then sold them to black marketers, according to police. The MREs were eventually sold in markets in cities including Seoul, Dongducheon, and Yangju. One dealer sold MREs at a market near Seoul's Dongmyo station for about 30,000 won, or about $29.70, per box, accepting only cash so police couldn't track his activities. In all, authorities confiscated about 130 boxes containing ten to 12 MREs each since May, according to a statement released by Seoul police on Tuesday. Police said the MREs were taken from Kunsan Air Base and a South Korean-owned training field in Pohang, which is also home to the U.S. Marines' Camp Mujuk. Police began investigating the ring in May as part of a government crackdown on food safety violations. Members of the group are suspected of violating South Korea's Food Sanitation Act because they did not report their activities to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The Seoul police officer said members of the group will not face theft charges because they "gathered" but did not steal the discarded MREs. A Seoul detective said that in addition to illegally distributing the MREs, the group violated a ban on the importation of U.S. military combat rations. Five other South Koreans are under investigation for selling prepackaged military meals from other countries, including Great Britain, the press release said. The case will be sent to the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's office in mid-July. If charged and found guilty, the South Koreans could face fines of up to 100 million won, about $99,000 each, or jail sentences of up to 10 years, the officer said. MREs have long been a hot item on the black market in South Korea, where they are bought by fishing and camping enthusiasts, or by those simply curious about U.S. food. A popular Korean reality television show, which features aspects of life in the armed forces, has also increased interest in military culture, including MREs, police said.