Quiet possibly the most common complaint from Koreans about being host to thousands of American servicemembers is that they commit an inordinate amount of crime and then get away with it because of the “unfair” Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). This belief is widespread and completely believed by nearly everyone in the country with no one stopping to ask themselves is it true?
I have even heard from KATUSAs (Korean Augmentees to the US Army) I commanded in my unit that GIs commit crimes and get away with it because of the SOFA. When I challenge them and others that have made these statements to provide an example of a soldier committing a crime and getting away with it because of the SOFA, they always bring up the 2002 Armoured Vehicle Accident as evidence. I always appreciate them bring up that tragic accident because it is so easy to debunk and makes a great teaching point. The accident in question happened while the soldiers were on duty which clearly states in the US-ROK SOFA that it falls under the jurisdiction of the US military just like the SOFAs the Korean government has signed with nations that host Korean troops.
The American SOFA with Korea is actually better than the SOFAs that Korea has signed with other countries because it allows US soldiers to stand trial in Korean civilian courts for crimes committed while off duty while the Korean SOFAs do not. Some examples of the Korean SOFAs being activated to clear Korean soldiers from being tried in foreign courts include the 2005 shooting of an Iraqi soldier by a Korean servicemeber[i] as well as a 2006 traffic accident that killed a Kurdish political official in Irbil, Iraq[ii]. Each of these incidents were handled by Korean military courts because of the SOFA Korea signed with Iraq. Even more telling is that a ROK military servicemembers in Korea do not stand trial for crimes committed while on or even off duty. This just begs the question of if Korean civilian courts are not good enough for their own servicemembers who speak Korean and understand the system, than why should Korean civilian courts be good enough to try US servicemembers who do not understand the system much less even speak the language?
Let me make clear before I move on that I am not advocating for any revision of the current SOFA to exempt American servicemembers from Korean courts. I am only pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of those in Korean society who do want to change the SOFA to be able to try US servicemembers for incidents that happen while on duty when it is something their own military will never agree to, even for crimes committed while off duty.
Despite Korean conventional wisdom that the SOFA allows GIs to literally get away with murder and fly back to America, the truth of the matter is that there is not one reason to blame for why GI incidents occur; GI incidents are a product of simple statistics, the environment in Korea, and leadership. Statistics of criminal activity show that the usual troublemakers are immature, young, male, junior enlisted soldiers. Guess what USFK is primarily filled with, young, male, junior enlisted soldiers. Then these soldiers are thrown into a sleazy “ville” (entertainment areas outside US camps) filled with alcohol and prostitutes; is it any wonder why these soldiers commit the most crimes in United States Force Korea (USFK)? Trouble from this pool of soldiers has happened long before now and will continue to happen in the future. It is a statistical certainty. What is important to determine is the measures taken by USFK to limit incidents from happening and how the USFK crime rate compares to the local population.
When looking at GI crime rates, people need to take a historical perspective on incidents in Korea. Just a decade ago the ville was a much more misbehaved place than what it is now. Back then I was appalled by the conditions in the entertainment districts located outside US military bases. I could not walk through the Dongducheon ville north of Seoul without being approached by multiple prostitutes or seeing a fight break out somewhere. Some of the older soldiers in my unit were stationed in Korea in the 80’s and they told me the ville was tame compared to what I saw then. With the environment that soldiers were thrown into in the ville it should come as no surprise that in prior decades there was much more serious crime occurring involving USFK servicemembers than there are now.
A Historical Look at GI Crime
The USinKorea website maintains an archive of GI Crimes in Korea through published American newspaper reports such as the New York Times and the Washington Post[iii]. The newspaper articles show that there were a number of violent incidents involving US servicemembers over the decades that are truly a disgrace to anyone wearing the uniform, however they also show that since the US-ROK SOFA was first signed in 1966 that US servicemembers have been regularly tried in Korean courts to include even receiving the death penalty. For example the first documented rape that was handled by Korean courts was in 1967, the first murder was handled by the Korean courts in 1968, and the first reported taxi cab related incident was in 1969. The rapes and murders continue through the years and this list is just what the site’s webmaster was able to dig up through published US newspaper reports, imagine how many more incidents happened that were never published. As appalling as all these incidents may be it is also instructive because it shows that the argument that US soldiers can literally get away with murder in Korea and fly home because of the SOFA is totally untrue and has been untrue for decades because all these American criminals that were tried and convicted in Korean courts.
Part of the reason that feeds this perception of GIs getting away with crimes is that in the past the Korean media which was controlled by authoritarian governments would not publish stories about GI crimes fearing that it would harm the alliance between the two countries. As democracy came to the country and the media received increased freedoms, stories about GI crimes began to appear in the news such as the 1992 murder of a Dongducheon bar worker Yoon Geu-mi by Private Kenneth Markle[iv]. Markle had brutally murdered the woman after he found out that she had been with another man the night before. Markle bashed her and then sexually assaulted her with an umbrella and Coke bottle before pouring laundry detergent over the body. The scene was horrific and photographs of the murder spread across Korea and the conventional wisdom soon became that US troops have been doing these types of crimes for a long time and had been getting away with it. However, as I have already demonstrated yes, horrible crimes have happened over the years involving USFK servicemembers, but they were tried and convicted in Korean courts for those crimes; it was just that the Korean public never heard about them. Markle went on to be tried and convicted in Korean court and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, just like the GIs criminals that came before him starting way back in 1967. The only thing that made his case different was that it was widely published.
Reporting GI Crime Today
In the past the Korean media may not have reported incidents of GI crime, but today the exact opposite has happened. Now the media reports the smallest incidents involving GIs. For example just last year a Korean newspaper ran an article about how an American GI brushed a Korean woman with the mirror of his car[v]. Would such an article have ever been published if the woman was brushed by the mirror of a vehicle driven by a Korean? Of course not, but the Korean media will report any incident involving a GI which further feeds the conventional wisdom of out of control GI crime.
Additionally, the proliferation of the Internet has only further added to the perception of surging GI crime. Often times the Internet will be the catalyst to publicize a perceived injustice by a USFK servicemember. For example the 2000 Yongsan Water Dumping Scandal and the 2002 Armoured Vehicle Accident were greatly amplified with an incredible amount of disinformation and outright lies on the Internet before the media picked up the story and reported the same disinformation to further inflame the Korean public.
To further add to the perception of out of control GI crime is the sensationalism that the Korean media often adds to the reporting to inflame public anger. The best example of this is the 1995 Seoul subway brawl involving four USFK soldiers[vi]. One of the soldiers on the subway patted the behind of a Korean woman with him. A group of Korean males than confronted the American soldier about patting the woman’s behind. The woman explained to the male Koreans that she was in fact the soldier’s wife. After hearing this, the Korean males began to spat on and slap the woman for being married to the soldier. Needless to say the husband and friends intervened to prevent the Koreans from beating the soldier’s wife. However, the story that was published in the Korean media was one of drunk, American GIs sexually assaulting a Korean woman on the subway until confronted by concerned local citizens.
Here is how the Korea Times reported the case[vii]:
“The four went on the rampage in the subway station in May and beat Cho who tried to stop them, causing him injuries requiring three weeks of treatment, the prosecution claimed. They were indicted without physical detention on May 19.”
With a dishonest media narrative such as this, the incident quickly became one that inflamed anti-US sentiment in the country. This belief was only reinforced when the four GIs and the Korean wife were arrested and convicted of assault. Three of the GIs received monetary fines while the GI husband was sentenced to six months in jail while his wife, the one spat on and slapped, received a fine. The Koreans that started the fight in the first place were never even indicted. This is justice in Korea, that I show later in the essay, continues to be practiced to this day.
A year later the GI husband was able to successfully appeal his case and quietly his jail term was reduced to a fine just like the others involved. If the US-ROK SOFA had not been in place at the time he would have been imprisoned in Korean jail the entire time his case was awaiting appeal for an obvious travesty of justice. This case is one of many examples of why the US needs a SOFA with a country like South Korea where a sensational media and rampant xenophobic nationalism often makes any fair trial of an alleged crime by a USFK servicemember impossible.
Another more recent example of an outrageous arrest of USFK servicemembers was in 2003 when three American GIs were assaulted and then kidnapped off a Seoul subway by known anti-US activists.[viii] One of the kidnapped soldiers was taken to a packed college sports stadium and forced to make a coerced statement to the crowd condemning USFK that was broadcast on national television. Then the soldiers were taken to a hospital and forced to apologize to the anti-US activist who attacked them on the subway in the first place. Despite being assaulted on the subway, kidnapped, and then forced to make coerced statements on national TV, the soldiers were then booked by the police for assault.
A travesty of justice doesn’t begin to describe how despicable this case is. Could you imagine what the Korean reaction would be if a mob of US soldiers assaulted three Koreans, kidnapped them on to a US military installation, and then forced them to make coerced anti-Korean statements on the Armed Forces Network? There would be nation wide outrage in Korea, yet when it happens to US soldiers they are the ones charged with a crime. It truly boggles the mind.
As evidence that the railroading of American soldiers in Korean courts continues to this day look no further than the case of PFC Mark Feldman. Feldman was convicted of attempted rape of an off duty Korean policewoman, along with another USFK servicemember SGT Anthony Basel. Basel confessed and was convicted for the crime, but Feldman told police that he was outside trying to catch a taxi while Basel was using the restroom where the attack occurred. The victim did not see Feldman in the bathroom and initially the restaurant owner that broke up the attack did not see Feldman either in his initial sworn statement to police. However, later the police were able to get the restaurant owner to change his statement and were able to arrest and convict Feldman. Additionally the police pressured Basel to write a statement implicating Feldman in order to reduce his own jail time. During Feldman’s trial he was not even given an adequate interpreter to understand what was going on.
When Feldman was convicted the senior judge presiding over the case encouraged Feldman to appeal the conviction because it was so dubious, which he did. After sitting in Korean jail for 113 days PFC Feldman’s conviction was reversed because of lack of evidence and changing witness statements[ix]. Under the pre-2001 US-ROK SOFA, Feldman would have never been in jail to begin with because the old SOFA only sent USFK servicemembers to Korean jail after their appeals process was complete. Since the 2001 revision soldiers are now handed over to Korean authorities before the completion of their appeals process. Yes the SOFA is unfair; it is unfair towards American soldiers not Koreans.
The Statistics of GI Crime
The Korean media and politicians like to play with statistics as well in order to feed the conventional wisdom of out of control GI crime. Often statistics will be released that shows a high USFK crime rate, however the media will inflate the statistics by including such minor offenses as parking tickets to support their claim of out of control GI crime. Left wing Korean politician Lee Young-soon in 2005 released statistics from the Seoul police department that USFK soldiers committed 780 criminal acts over a six-year period and were not held for trial[x]. To sensationalize this statistic even further, the newspaper headline read, “No US Soldiers Held in Hundreds of Crimes”. Of course this statistic was inflated with unpaid parking tickets but the article also made no distinction of whether the soldiers not tried in Korean court were found to have no involvement in the crime by the police or were handed over to the US military for trial for minor crimes. From personal experience I have seen Korean police hand over soldiers for minor crimes such as urinating on a building to be handled by the military justice system so they do not have to prepare all the necessary paperwork to handle a US servicemember case in the Korean justice system. It should come as no surprise that this politician was later linked to a North Korean spy scandal[xi].
So what do the real criminal statistics say about GI crimes in Korea? For example let’s start with the statistics for SOFA status persons convicted of crimes in Korean court in 2007. These statistics are compiled from the ROK criminal court records involving USFK members published every month on the USFK website:
- Crime Soldier Dependent Contractor
- Rape 2
- Sexual Assault 1
- Assault 11 2 1
- Bodily Injury 5
- Larceny 3
- Robbery 1
- Drugs 2
- DUI 10
- Prostitution 1
- T.M. Violation 2
- Totals: 36 4 1
USFK currently has approximately 27,500 soldiers stationed in Korea. This means that .00131% of the population of USFK servicemembers in Korea are the ones causing trouble while the other 27,464 soldiers are minding their own business and respecting Korean law. Further more if the number of USFK servicemembers is divided by the number of incidents the ratio comes out to 1 criminal incident for every 764 soldiers.
This ratio is even further improved when just serious crimes are considered. The Korean National Policy Agency considers Murder, Robbery, Rape, Violence, & Larceny as major crimes when compiling Korean crime statistics. Of these five major categories USFK soldiers committed 23 cases of serious crime. When the USFK population is divided by this number, the ratio comes out to 1 serious crime for 1196 soldiers.
So how does this compare to Korean crime rates? The Korean National Police Agency has 2007 statistics for serious crimes committed by Koreans on their website. The KNPA has arrested 385,704 Koreans for serious crimes out of a population of 49 million Koreans[xii]. Here is how the statistics break down:
- Crime Number
- Murder – 1,062
- Burglary – 3,731
- Rape – 7,795
- Theft – 102,688
- Assault – 270,428
- Total - 385,704
Korea has a conviction rate of 99% which means that of the 385,704 people arrested that comes out to roughly 381,847 people convicted. If the total Korean population of 49 million is divided by the number of serious criminal convictions, the ratio comes out to 1 serious crime for every 128 Koreans. As I have just demonstrated the USFK crime rate isn’t just lower than the Korean crime rate, but is significantly lower.
These statistics are even more interesting when compared by individual crime. For example by using the same equation as above, for assaults 1 in every 183 Koreans are arrested for assault compared to 1 in every 1,718 USFK servicemembers. The Korean statistic for rape is much high then the USFK number with 1 in every 6,350 Koreans are arrested for rape compared to 1 in every 9,166 USFK servicemembers. For combined burglary and theft 1 person is arrested for every 181 Koreans compared to 1 person arrested for every 6875 USFK servicemembers. Finally, for murder 1 in every 45,623 Koreans are arrested for murder compared to zero arrests for murder for USFK servicemembers.
These numbers are truly stunning and show how hard USFK has worked in recent years to lower what was already a low crime rate to begin with. The most stunning statistic the last few years has been that no USFK servicemember has been involved with murdering a Korean.
If you look at murders from 1990-2000 there was the infamous 1993 Kenneth Markle murder[xiii] of a Korean prostitute in Dongducheon, followed by another murder in Dongducheon in 1996 of another prostitute by Steven Munique[xiv], then a 1998 murder by Jerome Henrix[xv] of a prostitute in Itaewon, and then the 2000 murder of yet another Itaewon prostitute by Christopher McCarthy[xvi]. Additionally a USFK dependent murdered a Korean man at the Itaewon Burger King in 1997[xvii].
Now compare these murders to time period between 2001 through 2008 where not one murder of a Korean civilian was perpetrated by a USFK servicemember. In fact a USFK servicemember was more recently murdered by a Korean than vice versa when in 2000 Major David Berry was murdered in broad daylight in Itaewon by a deranged Korean man[xviii].
The Spread of Disinformation
What else is interesting is that the most notorious Korean anti-US group USA Crime has launched a campaign claiming that USFK is releasing mentally deranged soldiers into Korea due to their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that they are committing increasing crime in Korea[xix]. The statistics above prove that this is nonsense especially the murder statistics. How does USA Crime explain that during the peace time military before 9/11 that USFK servicemembers were responsible for murdering four Korean civilians, but after 9/11 not one Korean civilian has been murdered by these so called mentally deranged soldiers? They can’t explain it and they won’t explain it either because their sole purpose is to spread anti-US disinformation to the Korean public, which they are very effective at doing. They could care less about the actual truth of USFK crime rates.
It is because of the blatant smears, disinformation campaigns, and subsequent publicity that the Korean public continues to believe that USFK is responsible for an inordinate amount of crime in Korea. This perception problem has caused a command environment within USFK where commanders are trying to prevent every incident when preventing all incidents is statistically impossible. There is approximately 40,000 USFK servicemembers, contractors, and family members in Korea. Is there a town of 40,000 people in either the US or Korea with no crime?
The USFK attempt to create a crime free utopia is statistically impossible. In order to create this utopia, a curfew is implemented, the battle buddy policy exists, the loss of driving privileges for most of USFK service members was enacted, blood alcohol content (BAC) regulations in the 2nd Infantry Division were implemented, certain areas of Korean cities are put off limits, along with a host of other regulations to limit the amount of incidents involving USFK servicemembers.
All these regulations greatly effect soldier life in Korea which effects morale and has the side effect of creating a negative perception of Koreans because everyone knows these restrictions are enacted on them because of a general Korean public that believes GIs are out of control criminals. This perception will not change until the Korean media stops reporting every Korean brushed by a USFK servicemembers car mirror as well as the media stopping the sensationalizing of major USFK crimes without providing context of how the USFK crime rate is significantly lower then the Korean crime rate.
The Korean media is only going to change the way they report when USFK and the American government begins to vigorously defend the rights and reputations of American servicemembers stationed in Korea. Korea has a long pattern of arrests of GIs, such as the 1995 subway incident that are driven solely by xenophobic nationalism. When these incidents happen why are American politicians and media silent while US soldiers are being railroaded through Korean courts? As long as America’s political leaders and media continues to be ignorant of the treatment of USFK servicemembers on the peninsula, cases of nationalistic xenophobic prosecutions will continue for little regard of whether the soldier is guilty or not simply to appease the masses in Korea that desperately want to believe GIs are out of control criminals despite all evidence that says otherwise. Just because Korean authorities are more concerned with appeasing the masses instead of rendering justice doesn’t mean our political leaders should be as well. USFK servicemembers deserve better than this.
Note #1: I would appreciate if everyone DIGG this story by clicking here and if you have a blog to link to this posting. The internet is filled with disinformation about USFK GI crimes and I want to get this posting pushed up the Google page rankings as much as possible to combat the high level lies and propaganda on the Internet that only continues to feed the perception of out of control GI crime in Korea. Thanks.
Note #2: This posting has been updated with the latest 2007 KNPA criminal statistics and adjusted to reflect a 99% ROK criminal conviction rate.
[i] “Korean Soldier Accidentally Killed Iraqi”, Chosun Ilbo, 13 April 2005, http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200504/200504130032.html
[ii] Jung Sung-ki, “Kurd Official Killed in Traffic in Erbil”, The Korea Times, 02 February 2006, http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2006/2/kurdlocal98.htm
[iv] “Former GI Convicted of Murder Released from South Korean Prison Early”, Stars & Stripes, 29 October 2006, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=40120&archive=true
[v] “Woman Demands Justice for Hit & Run Accident”, The Hankyoreh, 27 June 2007, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/218697.html
[vi] Nicholas Kristof, “Subway Brawl Inflames Issue of GI’s in Korea”, New York Times, 24 August 1995, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CEED81430F937A1575BC0A963958260
[vii] “US Sergeant Involved in Subway Brawl in May Given 6 Month Jail Sentence”, Korea Times, 22 December 1995
[ix] Jimmy Norris & Hwang Hae-rym, “Soldiers Jailed in Attempted Rape of South Korean Policewoman Freed”, Stars & Stripes, 16 January 2008, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=59127&archive=true
[x] “No US Soldiers Held in Hundreds of Crimes”, Chosun Ilbo, 26 September 2005, http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200509/200509260010.html
[xi] “Prosecutors Accuse 5, Including American of Spying for North Korea”, USA Today, 08 December 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2006-12-08-korea-espionage_x.htm
[xiii] “Former GI Convicted of Murder Released from South Korean Prison Early”, Stars & Stripes, 29 October 2006, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=40120&archive=true
[xvi] “US Soldier Guilty of Sex Killing”, BBC, 16 June 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/793426.stm
[xvii] Terri Weaver & Hwang Hae-rym, “South Korean Murder Victim’s Family Wins Settlement”, Stars & Stripes, 21 January 2006, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=33581&archive=true
[xviii] “US Strengthens Safety for Its Troops in South Korea”, CNN, 19 July 2000, http://edition.cnn.com/2000/ASIANOW/east/07/18/skorea.us.military.ap/
[xix] “Arrange Countermeasures for Sexual Offenses Committed by the USFK, Address Postwar Trauma (PTSD), and Release Information to the Public!”, USA Crime, http://usacrime.or.kr/, accessed 14 February 2008