REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- Three violent attacks on South Korean residents were allegedly committed in recent weeks by off-duty U.S. servicemen here, including the assault of a 70-year-old grandmother and the unconnected rapes of two other women, Seoul officials say.
Park Kyungsoo, 30, director of the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, knew the public outrage to the crimes would be swift.
“There’s a degree of perversion to the attacks that I knew South Koreans wouldn’t stand for,” said Park.
A 21-year-old U.S. Army private is in South Korean custody after being indicted in the alleged rape of an 18-year-old girl. U.S. officials, including top East Asian diplomat Kurt Campbell, apologized for “pain” caused by allegations that American soldiers sexually assaulted citizens here, and the military has imposed a temporary curfew on its soldiers across South Korea.
Still, attitudes toward the 28,500 U.S. servicemen and women stationed in South Korea have deteriorated. Many residents call for the South Korean government to end its diplomatic agreement that allows for the U.S. troop presence, claiming that they’re more afraid of the U.S. military peacekeepers than the North Korean regime they are supposed to be protected them from.
Seoul dance clubs once frequented by U.S. military now bar admission to American soldiers after concern expressed by female patrons, according to local press reports here. South Korea also created a task force to seek revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, that governs the legal status of U.S. troops in South Korea and elsewhere.
Activists here say that the SOFA, signed in 1965 and amended in 1995 and 2001, is unjust because it goes too far in protecting U.S. soldiers. Many want the police here to be given more legal jurisdiction to investigate sex crimes involving American soldiers.
These developments are the latest in rising tensions between the U.S. military and foreign governments that include controversies over SOFA agreements with both Iraq and Japan.
Many insist that such disagreements pose little threat to overall relations between Washington and ally nations. But such squabbles also suggest an often competing interest between the legal rights of its foreign-based troops and a local citizenry that wants to insure that the visitors are subject to native laws.
“I understand the U.S. wants to protect its soldiers from kangaroo courts overseas, but Koreans also have a right to safeguard their own citizens,” Park said. “The perception among many here is that U.S. soldiers commit crimes and then run back to the protection of their base.”
South Korean authorities cite a rising crime rate among U.S. servicemen. There were 377 alleged crimes last year, up from 306 in 2009, according to national police statistics. Between 2000 and 2010, rapes rose from zero to 11; burglaries from 9 to 24 and violent crime in general from 118 to 154, according to officials.
U.S. officials say the crime rate is low considering the size of the troop presence here.
“A high, high percentage of our service members do the right thing. They abide by the law, make the right choices and conduct themselves professionally,” said Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea.
He added that South Korean police have quick access to crime suspects under the present SOFA. The Army private indicted in the recent rape was handed over to South Korean police the same day they requested to have him in custody, he said.
“In the last five years, how many times have we said no to such requests? Zero,” Withington added. “The system is working fine just the way it is.”
But an editorial in a Seoul newspaper criticized the U.S. military for delaying access by investigators to the 21-year-old rape suspect before the indictment was filed.
“More than a week has since passed -– enough time to change evidence or statement -– but law enforcement officials could not have access to the suspect, as he is in virtual U.S. territory in Korea,” the editorial read.
Others say the SOFA does not need to be changed.
"Sexual assault is a terrible crime and it draws very emotional reactions, but revising the SOFA cannot prevent it from happening,” said Daniel Pinkston, the North East Asia deputy project director with the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Seoul.
"South Korea has the authority and the right to prosecute U.S. military personnel for crimes committed [there.] And they do,” he added. “And the U.S. military prosecutes them as well.”
Yet experts on U.S. military law warn that such tensions can erode overall diplomatic relations if left unchecked.
“We actually have a well-behaved military –- it’s a fact,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches U.S. military law at Yale Law School. “What makes any amount of crime intolerable are the very high stakes involved.”
Decades have changed the scope and reasoning behind the U.S. presence in nations like Japan and South Korea, where some believe the need for foreign soldiers has greatly diminished.
“Any crime is one too many when you have an occupying force that many believe has outlived its usefulness,” Fidell added. “With the endless trickle of quite appalling crimes in places like Okinawa, it’s not surprising the population is going crazy.”
While South Korea “has dangerous neighbors,” it’s not Iraq or Afghanistan, Fidell said. Continued crime could seriously fray public opinion. “When countries get ticked off, they can find ways to vent their frustration. They can make life easy on Uncle Sam, or not.”
The recent South Korean rapes are the subject of talk among U.S. servicemen here. “G.I. Joe goes out in the real Korea where there are no controls … and he causes unmanaged irritation,” one person wrote on a website frequented by U.S. soldiers, “which [causes] unnecessary complications for the alliance.”
South Korea has a history of waging violent protests against perceived U.S. military wrongdoers. Park’s watchdog group was formed in 1992 following the torture and murder of a 28-year-old Korean woman by an American soldier.
In 2002, riots spread across Seoul after two middle-school aged girls were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle.
Activists like Park insist that South Korea will not back down on its desire to see the SOFA revisited.
“Korean public sentiment no longer remains tolerant of sexual crimes, either by locals or foreigners,” one newspaper editorial read. “This has nothing to do with anti-Americanism…. Ten years is a long enough period to check and update any international treaties.”
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Park Kyungsoo, director of the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, wants South Korean authorities to have more access to investigate crimes committed by U.S. service personnel. Credit: Matt Douma for Times