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South Korea: 20 years later, California son faces trial for Seoul murder

A 1997 brutal stabbing in the Itaewon expat district was never solved. But this year the US extradited Arthur Patterson, 17 at the time, to face trial.

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    Arthur Patterson was extradited to South Korea last month on charges related to the murder of a Seoul university student in 1997.
    Im Hun-jung/Yonhap via AP
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The pending trial in South Korea of an American for murder that will take place nearly 20 years after the crime has captured the public's imagination here, while illuminating some deep fissures in this nation’s close relationship with the United States.

Seoul prosecutors have accused Arthur Patterson of the 1997 murder of college student Cho Jung-pil, who was stabbed to death in the men’s room of a Burger King in Itaewon, Seoul’s main expat district.

The murder, in a country that has relatively few homicides, became infamous both for its brutality and for the botched response of authorities who allowed the accused to leave South Korea.

Mr. Patterson, the son of a US military contractor working in Korea at the time of the killing, was extradited to South Korea last month from Sunnyvale, Calif., after a legal battle that followed his indictment in 2011. 

Patterson was 17 years old when Mr. Cho was killed. He pled not guilty at a pre-trial hearing on Oct. 8. Patterson's lawyer, Oh Byeong-ju, told a packed courtroom in Seoul that the accused had been scapegoated for the killing by a Korean-American friend, who was also at the scene of the crime. 

Simmering resentment

US-South Korean relations are warm and the US enjoys a relatively positive profile with the South Korean public. Surveys show South Koreans are overwhelmingly in support of the military alliance with US, forged as a deterrent to North Korea after the Korean War. 

But Cho's murder in 1997 exposed a quiet but powerful resentment against the US, especially American forces that have long existed in pockets of Korean society. That feeling surfaced strongly in 2002 with the accidental killing of two girls by an American military vehicle and the acquittal of the vehicle’s drivers.

Tens of thousands of mostly young people protested in downtown Seoul, calling on the government to remove US forces from close proximity to Korean homes and neighborhoods.

Now, the sudden extradition of a suspect in a murder made infamous by the 2009 film, “The Case of the Itaewon Homicide,” has brought some older feelings to the surface.

“The Itaewon murder case is so famous in Korea because it was a brutal, motiveless crime on a defenseless person, and no one was ever brought to justice,” says Kang Ju-won, an attorney and legal commentator based in Seoul.

The killing plays into well-worn narratives surrounding national identity, foreign threats, and victimhood, particularly at the hands of Americans.

“South Korea is now one of the world's most successful and prosperous states, but many Koreans' consciousness haven't caught up with that reality,” says David Straub, a former US diplomat in Seoul and author of “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea.”

“They still tend to feel that Korea must necessarily be a victim in dealings with bigger powers, including the United States,” he says. “That contributes to the complicated feelings many Koreans have about the United States, especially toward the presence of US military personnel in Korea.”

'Status of forces' issue?

In 1997, prosecutors blamed Cho’s murder on Patterson’s Korean-American friend Edward Lee, the only other person in the Burger King bathroom during the stabbing. 

Patterson was charged with possession of a deadly weapon and the destruction of evidence. 

When the country’s Supreme Court overturned Lee’s conviction for murder, suspicion fell on Patterson, who had been pardoned of a conviction on lesser charges. But Patterson had already left the country in 1999 when a prosecutor failed to renew a travel ban on him.

South Korean activists said the Patterson investigation had been impeded by the “status of forces agreement” that governs crimes involving US personnel and their dependents.

United States Forces Korea has insisted it fully cooperated with the investigation.

Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University in Incheon, agrees that crimes involving American soldiers may attract outsized attention because of a victim-like mentality cultivated by the ruling class during the feudal period and, later, the Japanese occupation.

"The distorted social psyche is amplified by the Korean elites themselves," he says, "especially so-called colonial legacy historians, even after the liberation, who kept preaching to Korean university students that Korea had been for millennia an anomaly which never was a big power but a loser, peripheral state."

Beyond the always potent nationalistic impulses here, the case is also raising a simple desire for answers that have defied resolution for 18 years.

One mother wrote on her blog Sunday that a news program on the killing had brought her to tears. As a parent herself, she described her empathy for the victim’s family.

“[I'm] hoping the exact truth will be revealed,” she wrote.

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