During the period of 2000-2004 USFK servicemembers were subject to a number of anti-American incidents especially after the 2002 Armored Vehicle Accident where an environment was created that encouraged altercations with US military members. Arguably the worst anti-American incident during this time period was the 2002 Subway Kidnapping. In September 2002 three USFK servicemembers, Private John Murphy, Private Eric Owens, and Private Shane Tucker were traveling back to Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu from Seoul on the subway system that runs between the two cities.
The three soldiers were sitting in a subway car when approached by a group of South Koreans led by the the 65 year old Suh Kyung-won. Suh was a long time anti-US activist and former member of parliament in South Korea that had been convicted in 1989 for spying for North Korea. Suh’s group was handing out flyers critical of the US military and the armored vehicle accident that happened 3 months prior. They were handing out these flyers to people on the subway as their group traveled to a major anti-US rally at Kyunghee University.
Suh approached the three soldiers and tried to give them a leaflet. One of the soldiers Private Murphy refused the leaflet and Suh slapped him in the face and was accosted by the other members of the group. Suh said he slapped in the face because Murphy cursed at him. Suh however does not speak English so how he would know for sure that Murphy cussed at him or not is open to debate. Murphy said he responded to the assault by Suh and other group members by swinging wildly to defend himself which included punching Suh in the face. The three soldiers moved to a different subway car and then got off the subway to wait for another train to get away from Suh’s group. However, the stop they got off on was the one where the anti-US protest was being held. The three soldiers now found themselves being ”pulled, punched, kicked and spat upon by demonstrators” as they tried to get away from them. As the soldiers were being beaten and pulled towards the Kyunghee University stadium by the growing mob the Korean riot police who had been stationed near the university for an unrelated event were able to intervene and rescue two of the soldiers from the mob.
The video opens with a one-minute statement by Suh recounting the evening’s events. The next 100 seconds show a chaotic street scene, with squadrons of riot-geared police and protesters running and cursing. Police are running while escorting Owens and Tucker from the mob.
An alarmed Owens and Tucker are seen running to police behind barricades at the hospital entrance.
“We have three friends. We have three,” shouts one of the soldiers.
“One more,” says the other. “Yellow. Yellow shirt. Yellow,” he said, tugging on his own shirt in an apparent reference to Murphy, who wore a school-bus-yellow shirt that day.
The video cuts to a vivid scene between South Korean protesters and riot police. One policeman bashes a protester with his shield, wounding the protester’s face. Other protesters throw items at police and kick them.
“How come you guys hit us to protect Americans?” the protesters scream. [Stars & Stripes]
Unfortunately the anti-US Voice of People website that published video of the incidnet has since removed the video from their website, but fortunately the Stars & Stripes published what was said. I find it interesting how the xenophobia of the protesters by thinking the police would just give up the soldiers who are being beaten simply because of their nationality. Their friend Private Murphy remained detained by the mob and brought to the stadium to witness the anti-US rally. There according to the US military he ”was photographed, videotaped and allegedly forced to make a public statement about the incident on the train.” The US military also criticized the Korean police for allegedly letting the demonstrators take Murphy with them.
At the rally one of the key statements that Murphy was forced to say was that the US military should give up legal jurisdiction of the two soldiers involved in the 2002 Armored Vehicle Incident back to Korean authorities. For those that do not know the US-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) allows the US military to keep legal jurisdiction over servicemembers involved in incidents while on duty. Since the armored vehicle accident happened while on duty the US military kept jurisdiction over the case. If the accident had happened off duty while driving a civilian car the soldiers would have been tried in a South Korean court. The military keep jurisdiction for on duty incidents is a central tenant of all US SOFAs and is one that is included in SOFAs that the Korean military has signed with other countries that ROK Army troops are deployed in. The 2002 Armored Vehicle Accident is a perfect example of why a SOFA is needed in order to prevent politically motivated mob justice against US servicemembers serving in a foreign country. The kidnappers of Murphy would later go on to claim that they kidnapped Murphy because they thought the US-ROK SOFA would prevent the police from arresting him. Even if this was true, this shows how effective the misinformation about the US-ROK SOFA in Korea has been over the years.
The demonstrators that had kidnapped Murphy were from the pro-North Korean group Hanchongryun. Hanchongryun were some of the most violent protesters duriring the 2008 US beef riots and have a long track record of anti-US and pro-North Korean activity. This group was actually considered an illegal pro-North Korean collaborator group until Korean President Roh Moo-hyun came to power in 2003 and allowed them operate openly again. The Hanchongryun members next took Murphy from the stadium to Kyunghee University Hospital where he was forced to apologize to Suh Kyung-won who was sitting in a hospital bed there with a black eye. Murphy’s time at the hospital was also videotaped. Here is what Murphy said in the video:
“I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. I’m very sorry. I’m sorry,” says Pvt. John Murphy to Suh Kyung-won, a former South Korean assemblyman who has accused Murphy of throwing the first punch in a melee that spread from a train car to a sports stadium. Murphy, his palms pressed together and taking cues from a South Korean policeman, tells Suh, “I was swinging. I was not looking … I was scared because everybody was hitting me … I’m very, very sorry.” [Stars & Stripes]
I have seen this video before and clearly Murphy was under duress and even then he clearly states that he was assaulted by the mob first. After being forcibly brought to the hospital and videotaped Murphy was then released by the mob to Korean police who were actually in the hospital letting the mob use Murphy as a anti-US propaganda prop. Ultimately despite being assaulted, beaten, kidnapped, and forced to make coerced statements, Murphy was charged by the Korean police for assault.
After this incident the US embassy and military in South Korea was furious and demanded action by the Korean government against Suh and the Hanchongryun members that were responsible for the beating and kidnapping. They also demanded that the charges be dropped against Murphy which later they were by the Korean police. Despite a mob beating and kidnapping these soldiers only one person ever received any punishment. 24 year old Yongin University student Koh Min-soo was fined $8,500 and given three years probation for the assault and kidnapping of the US soldiers. However, the judge presiding over the case said during sentencing that the fight was provoked by Murphy and that Koh was responding to help an older Korean. This is of course ridiculous when later Korean prosecutors admitted they dropped charges against Murphy because they determined that Suh struck Murphy first and then abducted him. However, defenders of Suh would later say that this was just a cultural misunderstanding:
Reminds me of the subway incident with some USFK soldiers in 2002. In my view the incident was a series of cross-cultural misunderstandings. I’ve met Suh Kyung Won personally on a few occasions and his public behavior over the years does make me believe that he probably touched one of the three US soldiers in one way or another, as he is accused of doing. No responsible public figure wants to be seen with him anymore, and he likes to make a scene and make himself a victim at demonstrations. But a man of his age can physically push a young man around in Korea, or at least do it and not then get a violent response, which appears to be what he got from the soldiers.
Americans think that once someone touches you you are authorized to unleash more than is necessary to merely get out of the situation. Angered by that, the students accompanying Suh dragged one of the soldiers on to the campus of nearby Kyunghee University to make him “apologize.” Well knowing that a US soldier had been taken by Korean students somewhere against his will, the riot police outside the school still chose not to raid the campus and rescue the guy. Like I’m saying, Koreans just don’t think “detaining” someone to make a point is full-fledged kidnapping or hostage taking, and the police, being Korean, knew instinctively that the soldier would be coming back soon enough. It was not worth breaching the unwritten rules of engagement that exists between students and riot police.
I do not think this was a cultural misunderstanding. Suh and his goons clearly saw an opportunity to provoke an incident when they saw the GIs on the subway. They took advantage of this opportunity and ultimately got away with assault and kidnapping. Does anyone think that if the situation was reversed and an elder American man struck a younger Korean and then a mob of GIs pounded on the younger Koreans that people would defend the GIs for this behavior? Better yet what if the GIs then went and took the younger Koreans as hostages, brought them on to a US military installation and then forced them to make coerced anti-Korean statements to air on the Armed Forces Network? That is basically what happened and if GIs ever did such a thing it would lead to huge protests and outrage. Yet when the same thing happens to GIs it is hushed up and quickly forgotten. Here on the ROK Drop these incidents are not forgotten and hopefully shining light on these incidents can help other people from becoming provoked into an incident like these soldiers unfortunately found themselves in.
- Further Reading: GI Flashbacks: The 1995 Subway Brawl