As World Cops, GIs Walk Thin Legal Line
Koreans say US soldiers get off scot-free
SEOUL — IT was a Friday night, about 10:30, and the subway passing through downtown Seoul was crowded. About a dozen Americans boarded the train, recalls Cho Chung-kook, a Korean man commuting home. They seemed to be drunk. They were talking loudly and singing.
Although the Americans wore civilian clothes, Mr. Cho says he could tell they were soldiers. He speaks appreciatively of the US military's role in protecting his country from North Korea, but as he stood on the train, trying to read his newspaper, the Americans' high-volume revelry began to irritate him. "It was a public place," he explained recently, "and a group coming into the subway and making such a scene was unthinkable to me." So he said, in English, to one of the Americans: "Please, sir, be quiet."
They were simple words, but the events that followed are controversial. Cho spent the following two weeks in a hospital, recuperating from what he says was a beating inflicted by the Americans.
US military spokesmen here assert that Cho's opening statement was not a polite request but a surly verbal swipe at the Korean wife of one of the soldiers, and that the Americans then became the "victims" of an unprovoked attack by Korean youths.
The incident in the subway, which occurred on May 19, has become a focal point for South Korean frustration with Washington and its military. More than 37,000 US troops are stationed in this country, a presence that has continued since the 1950-1953 Korean War. The South Korean news media have given the incident and some other recent altercations between Koreans and US personnel exhaustive exposure.
The tensions in South Korea are reminiscent of early frictions between US military forces and their hosts in the Philippines, Japan, and Germany.
More than just an incident
South Korean radicals are using the furor to reiterate their demands for an American withdrawal, labeling the US military a de facto army of occupation. More even-tempered Koreans say the controversy captures the country's dissatisfaction over a host of issues, including: US pressure to open South Korean markets, the amount of prize real estate the US military occupies in Seoul, and US handling of negotiations with North Korea.
These concerns are part of an ongoing reevaluation of the relationship between the US and South Korea. Once an utterly subordinate nation, devastated by war and indebted to the US for turning back the North Korean invasion, South Korea has become economically strong and is run by a stable, democratic government.
In one indication of South Korea's postwar evolution, government officials proudly note that per capita income will exceed $10,000 this year. In 1962, the average Korean earned $83 a year.
Many Koreans feel that the US must do more to recognize South Korea as a partner. Toward that end, say lawyers, activists, and officials, the US must revise a document called the US-Republic of Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), initially negotiated in the mid-1960s, which in part governs what happens to US soldiers when they run afoul of Korean laws.
"In order to have good relations between the US and Korea," says a lawyer involved in SOFA issues, "the Korean people feel this agreement has to change."
Even South Korean government officials are saying that the SOFA grants unfair privileges to the Americans. "We will have interagency consultations in the near future," says a foreign ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity, "to find out what is wrong and what needs to be revised" in the agreement.
The SOFA tries to harmonize American ideas of legal fairness with local laws. But citizens here sometimes feel the agreement allows US personnel to commit crimes with impunity. Particularly galling to some Koreans are discrepancies between the US-Korean SOFA and similar documents in Japan and Germany. Authorities in Japan, for instance, are allowed to jail a defendant covered by SOFA. Accurate statistics are impossible to obtain, but South Korean analysts maintain that courts in Germany and Japan try cases involving US military suspects far more frequently than do Korean courts.
Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel during the Reagan administration, says there are always tensions between host countries and the US over misconduct by US troops. But, he says, the problem is sharper in countries that accepted sweeping SOFAs in exchange for protection by US forces, such as South Korea.
"There is always a problem the longer the troops are there. In the beginning, the people are so grateful, they are willing to accept anything. It is inevitable that as countries mature, you are going to have problems," says Dr. Korb, director of the Center for Public Policy Education at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
He notes that tensions fanned by the preferential treatment of US troops under the Philippines SOFA helped contribute to that country's decision to request the closures of Clark air field and Subic Bay Naval Station.
"In Japan, [tensions between citizens and US soldiers] were pretty manageable. But, in places like Korea and the Philippines, [the people] are trying to show they should be treated like equals," Korb says.
Bae Keum Ja, a Seoul attorney active on human rights issues, says the US-Korea SOFA "gives a very superior position to the Americans." Judging from recent Korean press reports and interviews with lawyers and officials here, the most disturbing feature of the SOFA is that it effectively prevents Korean authorities from holding US personnel suspected of crimes.
The agreement permits "the US to retain custody of US service members until such time as trial and all judicial proceedings are concluded," says a US military official in Seoul who requested anonymity.
In practice, these provisions mean that US soldiers (or military civilians or dependents covered by SOFA) request Korean police to call US military police whenever they run into trouble, who then take charge of the suspects.
The official acknowledges that the US is authorized to request custody of a convicted US soldier serving a prison sentence, a practice that many Koreans believe routinely takes place. In many cases, asserts Ms. Bae, the human rights lawyer, convicted US personnel "will be sent to the US side. If they are sent back to the US, then they never have to serve any time." But the US official denies that such a request has ever been made.
The agreement requires the US side to produce the suspects for questioning or legal proceedings, but these terms grate on Korean officials nonetheless.
Additionally, the SOFA requires that all interrogation of a US suspect covered by the agreement take place in the presence of a "SOFA representative," typically a US military legal officer, or the material will be inadmissible in court. Korean lawyers say this is evidence of a US mistrust of their legal system.
The intent of the SOFA is to preserve US constitutional protections for US service personnel stationed abroad, regardless of whether a soldier is on official duty or enjoying a free night on the town when he or she comes under suspicion of committing a crime. US spokesmen in Seoul speak harshly of Korean investigative and judicial procedures, and say it is only fair that the troops here be treated with the due process that they would encounter at home.
"We have to recognize some special status for US soldiers," says the Korean foreign ministry official. "But in Korea we have our own Constitution and our own legal system."
What happened in the Seoul subway last month will soon be a matter for a Korean court to decide. The accounts of Cho and Col. Michael Sullivan, a US military spokesman in Seoul, are wildly divergent. Sullivan says the US personnel involved would not agree to be interviewed.
Cho maintains he saw one of the Americans fondle a woman passenger. That led to a heated verbal exchange between him and some of the Americans.
Cho and the American group got off the train at the same stop, a major interchange, where he says several of the soldiers assaulted him physically, drawing a crowd and eventually the police.
The 13 people in the soldiers' party included 10 off-duty military police officers and the Korean wife of one of the MPs. Sullivan says, first of all, that they were not drunk. "None of them was revealed to have been heavily intoxicated," he reports. "Happy? Yes. Boisterous? Yes. Aggressive? Absolutely not."
The US side of the story
Sullivan insists that Cho began the incident by cursing the MP's wife, So-Hee Golinar, as sometimes happens to Korean women seen in public with Western men. He denies that the Americans sexually harassed anyone. But he adds that Cho was not the source of the most severe altercation.
After the group and Cho had gotten off their train to change subway lines, Sullivan says, switching into the present tense: "Another group of five to six Korean males verbally assaults and shoves forcibly the little Korean wife. The husband [Sgt. Frank Golinar] turns and goes to her aid."
This attack caused the fracas that drew the police, Sullivan says. US officials concede that Cho may have been injured in this dispute, but they question the severity of his injuries and deny the impression conveyed by Cho and sensationalized in the press here: that a gang of marauding, intoxicated US soldiers beat a Korean man after he asked them to be quiet and objected to their harassment of a Korean woman.
Nonetheless, Korean authorities have said they will exercise jurisdiction over four of the people in the American group Cho has said were involved in the beating, including Frank and So-Hee Golinar. That means that the four will almost certainly be indicted on charges related to the subway fight.
Cho says: "Before, I had friendly feelings toward Americans, and when soldiers asked me for directions I would try to help them. But after this incident, I'm angry. It's not the beating, it's their attitude afterward. They have not showed any remorse, and they're trying to say I was the one who started the violence."