As our academic concerns were looming during last semester’s reading week, a sense of overwhelming fury ignited in a place 6,000 miles away from our campus. Tens of thousands of South Korean citizens took to the streets in Seoul, Busan, New York, and Washington, D.C. — in grave protest over an event they believe exemplifies American hypocrisy. The event still lies deep in the psyche of South Korea — one of American’s closest allies.
The death of two Korean middle school girls by a U.S. armored tank in Uijungbu marked the latest headline in an alarming historical trend: the U.S. army’s disregard toward her host country. Shin Hyosun and Sim Misun, both 14 and best friends, were walking on the side of a road in the outskirts of Seoul when a 45-ton armored vehicle ran over them during a military exercise. After refusing the requests for a private meeting by the parents of Hyosun and Misun for two days, the U.S. army held a press conference. The commander responsible acknowledged that conducting an unannounced drill in a narrow civilian road contributed to the accident, but refused to answer questions regarding accountability. A few months later, the U.S. military court acquitted the two soldiers involved in the accident without holding any officer or private accountable.
Had this accident taken place on U.S. soil, what would have been the legal consequences of the commander and the soldiers involved? A lawsuit? A sentence?
The U.S. military court has effectively sent a message to the Korean public that the lives of schoolgirls in greater Seoul somehow hold less value. In holding no one responsible and offering only verbal apologies, the U.S. army has offered no real signal to the people of Korea of its intention to prevent similar blunders from taking place in the future. Just within a few weeks, the Japanese law authority took a U.S. soldier in custody for a rape charge — a right not given to Koreans.
The American troops stationed in South Korea give the United States teeth in containing Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions, which threatens the region of northeast Asia, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of the world’s GDP and maintains strong trade ties with the United States. In a few years, North Korea may obtain delivery technology sophisticated enough to bring Anchorage or Seattle within its range. At a time when the United States is lobbying key countries for support of its foreign policy in Iraq and North Korea, the existence of a double standard for the U.S. army in South Korea hurts its public support in the region.
In short, the Status of Forces Agreement, which ensures that the U.S. Military Police can take full custody of an American soldier charged with any crime, is in dire need of change if we are to create a truer Seoul-Washington partnership. Despite the verbal apologies, two facts still stand. First, the U.S. army held none accountable for a poorly executed exercise. Second, in Japan, unlike South Korea, charges of murder and rape against U.S. soldiers are handed over to the Japanese law authority. But with unwillingness from Washington to reform a longstanding agreement and reluctance from Seoul to rock its relations with the United States, both of these facts seem unlikely to change in the ongoing review of the SOFA. Public pressure from both sides of the Pacific remains our greatest hope for concrete policy changes that would in the least improve our image in the region and, at best, further our attempts to contain the North Korean crisis.
Korean studies scholars have shown concern in the lack of accountability for U.S. soldiers who commit crimes. Past cases of crime by U.S. soldiers include sexual harassment charges and street violence while intoxicated, all of which resulted in no legal consequences. And these crimes are not limited to misbehavior of individual soldiers. Korea’s Department of Environmental Protection also recently reported that pollution levels of American bases far surpass those of Korean bases, which adhere to the department’s standards.
Following the deaths of the two Korean schoolgirls, a U.S. soldier wrote to a military base newsletter, St. George: “The military should have brought at least someone in the chain of command to account.” While the Yale Law School debates over the U.S. army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” towards homosexuals, far more atrocious injustices are being perpetrated by the same institution outside the United States — innocent lives lost, women raped, the environment polluted. Our country is responsible and not being held accountable.
YoonSeok Lee is a sophomore in Davenport College. He is a member of the Coalition for Social Justice in Korea.