SEOUL — Long-standing public irritation at the behavior of the U.S. military in South Korea has found a new lightning rod: the legal system for American soldiers who commit crimes here.
So angry is the mood here that one of South Korea's largest newspapers, the Joong Ang Ilbo, carried a front-page cartoon last week depicting a group of grinning GIs being escorted by U.S. military police officers back to the safety of their base, leaving behind a beaten Korean lying in the street. A frustrated-looking Korean policeman stands helplessly by.
Taken alone, the legal issue would probably be nothing more than a footnote in U.S.-Korean relations.
But it comes after a host of other issues that have raised South Koreans' hackles. These include the allegations that hundreds of South Korean civilians were massacred by U.S. forces during the Korean War; a festering dispute over a noisy U.S. bombing range in Maehyang Ri, near Seoul, the capital; and the release of 20 gallons of a formaldehyde solution from a U.S. base in Seoul into a sewage system that feeds into the Han River.
From street protesters clashing with police outside U.S. bases on up to President Kim Dae Jung, there appears to be a rare unanimity of South Korean opinion on at least two points. First, the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which governs U.S. military operations overseas, is discriminatory toward Koreans and should be revised. Second, and perhaps most galling, is that SOFA gives Korea even less power than neighboring Japan has to control the prosecution and trial of miscreant U.S. military personnel.
In an interview last week, Kim said that the majority of Koreans are "frustrated" and critical of the conduct of the U.S. military, which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, but that only a few people are anti-American. However, Kim warned that anti-Americanism could erupt if the explosive issues are not defused quickly.
"If we do not have a SOFA agreement that is on a level equal to the SOFA agreement that the Japanese have, in light of this complex sentiment we have toward the Japanese, in light of our past history, that would be hard for the Korean people to accept," Kim said. "They feel that their pride is greatly damaged by this."
Kim was referring to the Japanese rule of Korea from 1904-45, during which the Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and speak Japanese. During his presidency, Kim has put particular emphasis on trying to improve relations with Japan, but any hint that Koreans are being treated as inferior--to Japanese or Americans--still rankles.
The U.S.-Japanese SOFA agreement specifies that when an accused U.S. service member is indicted by prosecutors, custody is transferred to Japanese authorities. But when a U.S. military suspect is charged in South Korea, the person isn't turned over to Korean authorities until after conviction.
In addition, if a Japanese court acquits the American suspect, Japanese prosecutors have the right to appeal, as they do when the suspect is Japanese. Korean prosecutors do not have the same right.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington is willing and ready to negotiate revisions to the SOFA agreement at talks scheduled for early August.
The U.S. has traditionally tried to avoid agreeing to provisions of foreign legal systems that conflict with cherished American constitutional rights, including the ban on double jeopardy trials and the right to confront an accuser, both of which are not protected under Korean law, the official said. The United States made such concessions in its agreement with Tokyo because it was desperate to rush troops to Japan so that they could be deployed to fight in the Korean War, the official said.
"There have been some other proposals made [by the U.S.] that are less palatable to the Korean side," the official said, noting that the Koreans are not obligated to accept them. "It's a negotiation, not a set of demands."
Concerns over rising anti-Americanism after the stabbing death of an U.S. Army doctor in Seoul last month, as well as anti-base demonstrations, prompted U.S. military authorities last week to warn troops to either stay on base or travel in pairs and behave themselves when going out.
Contrary to Korean perceptions, crime by U.S. personnel has generally been declining, from a peak of 2,383 crimes committed by troops or their families in 1975, to 734 offenses in 1998 and 824 in 1999, according to the South Korean Ministry of Justice. Of the 1999 crimes, however, 424 involved traffic offenses. Eighty-nine were violent.
Kim has insisted that U.S. troops must stay even if North and South Korea are reunited, but the political challenge will be to manage their presence.
As South Korea has become more affluent and democratic, and as citizens movements have flourished, the public is now able to air long-suppressed gripes and make demands that never would have been permitted under the old military dictatorships.