In S. Korea murder trial, complex views emerge of US military presence

Arthur Patterson from California was extradited to stand trial for a murder in the Itaewon district of Seoul. He was 17 at the time and a US military dependent.

Im Hun-jung/Yonhap via AP
Arthur Patterson, shown here arriving at Incheon International airport in September, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Friday for fatally stabbing a South Korean university student in 1997.

A Seoul court convicted and sentenced an American man to 20 years in prison Friday for a murder committed 18 years ago, a case that has captivated South Korea for years and fueled discontent towards US military bases in the country.

In a verdict read at the Central District Court of Seoul, the 33-year-old man from California, Arthur Patterson, was convicted of fatally stabbing a South Korean college student at a Burger King restaurant in 1997, reports The Associated Press. 

The sentence was the same that had been earlier requested by prosecutors. Mr. Patterson’s lawyer said he would appeal the verdict, reports The New York Times.

The murder of 22-year-old Cho Joong-pil occurred in Itaewon, an entertainment district popular among foreigners in Seoul, the South Korean capital. Patterson, who was 17 at the time of the killing, was in South Korea because his father was a contractor working for the US military.

The case has drawn intense scrutiny in South Korea where sensitivity about crimes perpetrated by foreigners, particularly by members of the US military, is long-standing. While the two nations have remained close allies since the Korean War in the 1950s, crimes involving US military personnel have often stoked anti-American sentiments, especially in previous decades when US soldiers were closely deployed among Koreans in front line neighborhoods along the line separating the two Koreas. 

In 2002, the accidental killing of two girls by an American military vehicle and the acquittal of the vehicle’s drivers led to widespread outrage and protests in downtown Seoul. Cho's murder exposed a similar rift, as John Power reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October:

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.”

Still, surveys show South Koreans are overwhelmingly in support of the military alliance with US. That's because many see it as a crucial deterrent to North Korea's military threats and provocations.

In the aftermath of North Korea's Jan. 6 nuclear test, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she would consider agreeing to the deployment of an advanced US missile system in her country, in part to protect American allies in the region.

Despite the continued threat posed by the North – and the growing assertiveness of China's military – the US has reduced its military footprint in South Korea over the last decade.

Nearly 25,000 US troops are now stationed across the country, according to data from the Pentagon, down from 37,500 troops in 2004. The current figure includes about 16,400 soldiers, 330 sailors, 140 Marines, and more than 8,000 airmen split between 15 bases. There also are almost 880 military dependents and about 3,200 civilian employees.

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