TENSIONS BETWEEN U.S. MILITARY AND SOUTH KOREAN PEOPLE
Relations between Koreans and members of the U.S. armed forces are generally fairly good, although there are incidents from time to time. Many young people, who were born long after the Korean War, feel that the American military presence in South Korea is no longer necessary and that it is more like an occupying force than a protector. Some care little about the whole situation apparently oblivious to the threat that North Korea presents. One 22-year-old student told the Los Angeles Times, “We are enjoying an affluent life right now. Why bother?”
Choe Sang Hun wrote in the New York Times: Most South Koreans support the country’s military alliance with the United States, citing the need to deter the North. But many also fear that any expansion of the American military presence could worsen tensions with the North and with China, and in some cases could damage local ways of life.” Villagers have “joined forces with environmental and political activists to initiate prolonged and often violent campaigns against new United States military bases. [Source: Choe Sang Hun, New York Times, July 13, 2016]
Associated Press reported: “Although most South Koreans support the U.S. military presence in their country as a deterrent against communist North Korea, accidents and crimes involving U.S. soldiers often have prompted demonstrations. Many South Koreans believe the Status of Forces Agreement, a legal code governing U.S. soldiers in South Korea. allows U.S. soldiers to get away with light punishment for crimes, and say South Korea should have more jurisdiction. U.S. officials have ruled out an immediate revision of the 1966 accord. Conservatives are concerned that anti-U.S. sentiments may hurt South Korea's alliance with the United States amid tension over North Korea. [Source: Jae-suk Yoo, Associated Press, June 12, 2003]
Some South Korean groups have very strong anti-American views. VOA News reported: “Park Je-hyung, leader of a leftist labor union, says there is no reason for the U.S. military to be in South Korea. He says he believes South Korea is more colonized now by its alliance relationship with the United States than it was under Japanese imperial rule from 1910 to 1945. Kim Ji-yeon, who is affiliated with a group anti-American women's group, says she believes the U.S. is intervening in every aspect of South Korean affairs - including security, political, and economic matters. The extreme rhetoric used by many of the protesters reflects a more moderate debate taking place in South Korea's mainstream, as the country tries to adapt its relationship with the United States to changing conditions. [Source: VOA News, October 31, 2009]
Incidents Involving U.S. Soldiers in South Korea
One American soldier was beaten up for reportedly "groping" a Korean woman at a subway station. The woman turned out to be the soldier's wife. Another time hundreds of Koreans staged a demonstration at a U.S.-army-run fun fair when Korean citizens said they wanted their money back for tickets not used in the fair. The citizens started a fight and several people were injured.
In January 2003, an American U-2 spy plane crashed into a house and vehicle repair shop 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Seoul. The pilot ejected and suffered minor injuries. The buildings caught fire and burned. Three South Koreans on the ground were hurt. The United States quickly apologized about the matter. In February 2003,, an American soldier was sentenced to 30 years in a military prison on charges of sodomy and assault against a South Korea soldier.
In September 2004, a U.S. Soldier was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for stabbing South Korean man during a drunken brawl. Associated Press reported: Pvt. John C. Humphrey was convicted of attempted homicide after stabbing a 27-year-old man in the neck with his military knife on May 15. The victim survived. "The victim would have died if the knife slipped a bit deeper," Judge Choi Wan-ju of the Seoul Central District Court said in a ruling. The victim, whose name was not released, intervened when the drunken soldier and fellow GIs stomped on a taxi on a downtown street in Seoul, according to local reports. [Source: Associated Press, September 17, 2004]
In October 2011, two U.S. soldiers were accused of raping teenagers in South Korea in separate incidents, prompting US military officials to apologize to to subdue public anger. Associated Press reported: Army Brigadier General David Conboy, who supervises the U.S. garrison in Seoul, issued a statement apologising for "pain" caused by allegations that a US soldier raped a girl in her rented room in Seoul on September 17. That soldier — a private in his early 20s — is being questioned by police but has not been arrested. Another US private has been arrested on suspicion of raping a teenage girl on September 24 in a city north of Seoul. The alleged assaults have prompted small protests near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, while the Internet has been abuzz with Koreans expressing their anger. General James Thurman, America's top commander in South Korea, said that he has instated a curfew following "the incidents over the last several months”. [Source: Associated Press, October 9, 2011]
Outrage After South Korean Schoolgirls Crushed by 50-Ton U.S. Armored Vehicle
Anti-Americanism and tensions between the United States and South Korea rose significantly in June, 2002 when two 13-year-old South Korean school girls — Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun — were crushed and killed by a 50-ton U.S. military armored vehicle on a narrow country road during a military maneuver near the North Korean border. Tensions rose even more, a couple of months later in November, when the two American soldiers involved in the incident — Sgts. Mark Walker and Fernando Nino — were acquitted of negligent homicide charges in a military court and allowed to return to the United States.
Thousands of anti-American protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy and chanted, “Let’s drive out the murderous American GIs!” and “Yankee Go Home!” They demanded that George Bush, U.S. President at the time, issue a formal apology himself rather than having the U.S. embassy issue one for him and called for laws to be changed to allow American soldiers to be tried in South Korea courts. Demonstrators that gathered outside U.S. military bases held banners that read: “Apologize for the Continuing Barbarism of U.S. Soldiers,” “Stop U.S. Crimes,” and “Pay for Using Korean Land at Your Bases.”
Anti-American demonstrations were held outside the U.S. embassy on a weekly basis, chanting "Punish the murderous GIs!" and "Withdraw U.S. troops!". At one point, several hundred students, some wearing masks and wielding plastic poles, charged toward the embassy, as thousands of other demonstrators set fire to paper American flags. [Source: Jae-suk Yoo, Associated Press, June 12, 2003]
Students clashed with police in Seoul, where 20,000 people gathered, many of them chanting “Let’s kick out the Americans”. Associated Press reported: “Riot police used plastic shields and sprayed fire extinguishers to beat back the protesters, who threw dirt at the helmeted officers. No serious injuries were reported. The largest protest was in the capital, Seoul, where about 20,000 people, many holding candles gathered at a plaza near the U.S. Embassy. Other major South Korean cities held smaller candlelight vigils.
Windows of cars with U.S. military plates were shattered with chunks of concrete, American bases were attacked with Molotov cocktails. American soldiers were assaulted on the streets, refused seats on subways, and refused service in coffee shops. Politicians, including President Roh Moo Hyun, then running for office fanned the flames with anti-American rhetoric.
After the protests, U.S. soldiers were repositioned away from the DMZ and the responsibility for their missions was transferred to South Korea. Washington, announced it would spend an additional US$11 billion over three years to strengthen its weaponry and intelligence gathering. There were calls for the removal of large numbers of U.S. troops from South Korea.
U.S. Soldiers Stabbed But Charged for Brawling in South Korea
In April 2013,four U.S. soldiers were charged after engaging in brawl a month earlier outside a Dongducheon night club, during which three of them were stabbed and the other was hit with a small baseball bat. Stars and Stripes reported: “The Korean club manager who allegedly stabbed the three soldiers was also indicted, according to the Uijeongbu District Prosecutor’s Office. All involved face the South Korean charge of “violating the act on the punishment of violence.” [Source: Jon Rabiroff and Yoo Kyong Chang, Stars and Stripes, April 23, 2013]
“The 6 a.m. brawl in The Ville outside Camp Casey was the most serious of three incidents involving U.S. soldiers in South Korea over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, after which 2nd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon temporarily implemented a number of restrictions — including a ban on alcohol consumption and the end of three- and four-day weekend passes — on his 10,000 soldiers in South Korea. Those restrictions have since been lifted.
“Police said everyone involved in the Dongducheon brawl had been drinking prior to the incident. The confrontation involved five Camp Casey soldiers and began when four of them tried to help a drunken Filipina woman who repeatedly fell down outside a club as she tried to stand up, according to police reports. The woman’s husband, a Korean-American soldier, saw the encounter and mistakenly believed the other soldiers were flirting with her. He took a small plastic baseball bat from his car, handed it to his wife, and began fighting the four soldiers with a knife, police said. The club owner, Lee Chang-hon, jumped into the fray, grabbed the knife from the soldier, who police said was an acquaintance, and stabbed three of the soldiers, police said.
The club owner, Lee Chang-hon, was arrested a month earlier for stabbing the three U.S. soldiers “Following an investigation by South Korean and U.S. investigators, the prosecutor’s office filed indictments against Lee and Spc. Paul Noel, who was struck with the bat, and referred their cases to Uijeongbu District Court, officials said. Pvt. Edward Peedin (stabbed in the midsection), Spc. Alexander Jones (stabbed in the buttocks) and Spc. Bobby Wright (finger cut), had their cases referred to “summary procedures,” the 2ID release said. A prosecutor’s office official said the three will most likely be fined for their involvement in the incident.
Stars and Stripe earlier reported: “The most seriously injured, a private, was stabbed in the abdomen and flown by helicopter to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, where he underwent surgery and is now in the intensive care unit, Scrocca said. The 2nd ID and the Dongducheon police have given differing accounts of the severity of his injury, with 2ID on Saturday saying the injury was not life-threatening. However, Kim said on Sunday that the soldier’s “life is in danger.” The other three injured soldiers are specialists and have been treated by doctors and released from medical care, Scrocca said. One was stabbed in the buttocks and another was stabbed in the hand. [Source: Ashley Rowland and Yoo Kyong Chang | Stars and Stripes Published: March 17, 2013]
Dongducheon is north of Seoul near the North Korean border in Gyeonggi Province,“The Ville is home to about two dozen “juicy bars,” where hostesses – usually Philippine women imported to work at the clubs – flirt with soldiers in order to get them to buy the women expensive juice drinks for their continued company. Thanks to a string of incidents in recent months, even relatively minor alleged acts of misbehavior by U.S. soldiers have received national attention in the South Korean media. “This incident is not representative of the favorable relationship between U.S. soldiers and Korean citizens in Dongducheon,” one U.S. military release said.
Clashes Between American Military Families and Their South Korean Neighbors Over Dogs and Dropped Bowling Balls
In 2010, a bowling ball dropped from a balcony raised tensions between longtime residents and U.S. military families at an apartment tower in Dongducheon, a town near the North Korean border with a large U.S. military presence. Reporting from there, Ethan Kim wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The ruckus started with the bowling ball incident...Somebody tossed a 16-pound ball from a 12th-floor window at the World Meridien apartments here, a projectile that residents complained could have crushed any unlucky person standing below. "I saw what looked like shattered pieces of a bowling ball spread out on the pavement," complex worker Kim Han-jin said. "An American couple was having a domestic dispute, and the husband threw out the bowling ball. He later apologized to his neighbors." [Source: Ethan Kim, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2010]
And thus began a social tug of war between some Korean and American residents in this quaint town of 90,000 an hour's drive north of Seoul. Thanks to a U.S. military housing policy introduced in February, 1,000 service families moved to off-base housing nationwide, often next door to Korean families. More than 4,000 Americans converged on Dongducheon, home to the Army's 2nd Infantry Division. In some cases, the foreign newcomers made up nearly half an apartment complex's population. What followed was a clash of cultures, with complaints about rambunctious American dogs on the one side, and frosty Koreans on the other.
“Park Seung-hye recalled her frustration over the large American-owned dogs that suddenly invaded her apartment complex, running around off-leash and scaring children. "The dogs aren't small puppies. They're huge and inappropriate to breed in an apartment setting," the 31-year-old mother of two said. "Many of the soldiers didn't clean up after their pets. Dog dung was everywhere." Loud parties were another concern. Many Americans threw outdoor barbecues late into the night. "It felt like an English village gone bad," said Kim Sun-mi, referring to English-speaking communities where Koreans learn about Western culture.
The newcomers were no happier. "Just because I'm an American, I felt that I was being watched to see if I cleaned after my dog," Spc. Robert Payne said. "The language barrier made things difficult because a lot of Koreans look so serious all the time and I wanted to be friendly." Rachel Galloway was miffed that apartment notices about planned power outages or water shutoffs were never posted in English. "I was doing some laundry and there was suddenly a blackout," the 24-year-old homemaker said. "Another time I was taking a shower and the hot water stopped. It was in the middle of winter."
Things Become Friendlier Between Clashing South Koreans and American Military Families
Things became more friendly after the U.S. soldiers and the South Koreans shared some beer and rice wine. Ethan Kim wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Dongducheon Mayor Oh Se-chang “had his hands full. "It's customary for the military police to get involved if there's trouble between soldiers and civilians," he said. "But this was a conflict between two different cultures, and the solution was to talk about it." Oh consulted with U.S. military officials before finally proposing a unique solution: In regular social gatherings, the two sides hold cultural exchanges and talk out their differences, an exercise in international relations on a neighborhood scale. [Source: Ethan Kim, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2010]
About 400 Dongducheon residents near Camp Casey, the main military base here, gathered around long tables Oktoberfest-style. Drinking beer and Korean makgeolli, a rice wine, they belted out verses of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as well as a Korean ballad about loneliness, "Firefly." "People talked about their cultural differences and how to resolve issues," Oh said.
“Many doubted that anyone would show up at the mixer, but Dongducheon officials persisted. Both sides finally warmed to the idea, realizing that the issue wasn't so much about being American or Korean, but being good neighbors. Now, regular events are planned. At World Meridien, announcements are now made in English and Korean, and street cleaners say dog feces aren't a problem anymore. That development encourages dog owner Payne. "Change won't happen overnight, but it's a good start," he said. "I enjoy living with my new neighbors. I learn a lot about South Korea, really get to know the country."
U.S. Military Accused of Dumping Toxic Chemicals in South Korea
In 2011, South Korea opened investigation into a report that the U.S. military dumped toxic chemicals near Seoul decades ago, which threatening to rekindle anti-American sentiments. Jeremy Laurence of Reuters reported: “Experts have been sent to the former U.S. base in Bucheon, west of Seoul, to check out the claims after South Korean media reported that a U.S. veteran had said "hundreds of gallons" of chemicals were buried there between 1963 and 1964. [Source: Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, May 25, 2011]
South Korea's foreign ministry said the two countries consider the issue serious, and local media called on the U.S. to come clean on the "alarming" revelations. "Even the slightest hint that the U.S. military is hiding something could lead to widespread public distrust," the top selling Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial. The latest revelations emerged after South Korean media this week uncovered comments made on the "Korean War Project," a website for ex-servicemen, a decade ago that "every imaginable chemical" had been dumped by U.S. forces at the Bucheon base between 1963-64.
“The base, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Seoul, was returned to South Korea in 1993 and is now used by South Korean engineering troops. The defense ministry official, who declined to be identified, said the Environment Ministry was also investigating the chemical dumping claims. The U.S. military on Wednesday attempted to distance itself from the latest report. "Once the installation was returned to the ROK government, it became their responsibility," said United States Forces Korea (USFK) spokeswoman Cenethea Lofbom. "The U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) does not impose any liability upon the U.S. government for the condition of former installations after they have been returned and accepted by the ROK government," she said, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, the Republic of Korea.
▪” The latest allegations come after three ex-servicemen revealed last week that they had buried the toxic chemical defoliant Agent Orange at Camp Carroll in Chilgok, about 300 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of the capital, in 1978. The South Korean and USFK launched a joint investigation into that report. USFK on Monday confirmed a large amount of chemicals were buried at the site but said they had been removed more than 30 years ago. It said a review of military records showed trace elements of dioxin had been found at the site. It did not specify what chemicals. Agent Orange was used to clear vegetation during the Vietnam War and was also used years later around demilitarized zones on the peninsula which was divided after the 1950-1953 Korean War. The toxic herbicide is suspected of causing serious health problems, including cancer, and birth defects.
South Koreans Clash With Police Over U.S. Base Expansion
In May 2006, thousands of police armed with batons stormed an abandoned school in South Korea to evict activists who were protesting plans to expand a U.S. military base. Protesters included anti-US activists, unionists and students. Dozens were injured. Reuters reported: “South Korean riot police have fought pitched battles with anti-US protesters and farmers as authorities moved to clear two rural townships to pave the way for a new military base. About 1000 protesters, many wielding bamboo sticks, yesterday clashed with police armed with batons in Pyongtaek, about 70 kilometres south of Seoul, where land has been allocated for the U.S. base. Scores of protesters were hurt, with at least two carried away on stretchers. About a dozen journalists, wearing helmets and armbands identifying them as media, were also hurt after being beaten by police. The confrontation has been brewing for months since about 100 farmers refused to vacate the area where South Korea and the United States agreed two years ago to move the main US military base, now in Seoul, and several others throughout the country. [Source: Lee Jae-won, Reuters, May 5, 2006]
Associated Press reported: About 3,000 police battled with hundreds of local residents and anti-U.S. protesters in the village of Pyeongtaek, about 40 miles south of Seoul, where they had occupied the school building overnight to protest the expansion plans. Some 7,000 police stood nearby. Some of the protesters were seen bleeding from the head. Police said the clash left at least 65 injured on both sides. A total of 114 protesters were also detained, police said. The operation was aimed at removing protesters from the site so the U.S. military can expand the nearby Camp Humphreys and move its entire command from the current headquarters in Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul. [Source: Ahn Young-Joon, Associated Press, May 4, 2006]
“Several villages on the outskirts of Pyeongtaek, a city of 360,000 people, must be razed for the base construction. The government has offered residents financial compensation to move out of their homes, but many residents have strongly objected to the plans. "We've reached a judgment that we can no longer delay this project, considering that unless this project progresses normally, it would hurt (the country's) diplomatic trust and incur an additional financial burden," Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung said in a statement after the clash.
South Korea and the United States agreed in 2004 on the base relocation and consolidation plan. About 1,000 villagers and anti-U.S. protesters had gathered at the school late Wednesday, after Yoon strongly hinted earlier in the day that the government would use force to evict protesters. As police raided the school Thursday morning, masked protesters fought back, pommelling the officers with long bamboo sticks. Many protesters ran away after about 20 minutes of fighting. Several protesters were seen standing atop the building, holding a placard that read, "Stop the expansion of U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek! Oppose war on the Korean Peninsula!"
At a protest in Pyeongtaek in October, 2009 over expansion of the same base more than 15,000 riot police showed up and prevented the protests from becoming violent. Protesters spent much of the day trying to break through police checkpoints to reach the site of the expansion — a tiny rice-farming town called Daechuri. By late afternoon, about 3000 protesters trickled through to a country road about three kilometers from the site. That turnout was far fewer than the 10,000 activist groups had predicted, and the demonstrations remained largely peaceful. [Source: VOA News, October 31, 2009]
South Korean Villagers Protest Plans for U.S. Missile Defense System
In July 2016, thousands of residents in the town of Seongju, South Korea staged protest expressing their opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system there. Choe Sang Hun wrote in the New York Times: “South Korea announced that a rural southern county would be the site of an advanced American missile defense battery, the planned deployment of which has angered China and North Korea — and, now, thousands of local residents, who demonstrated against the plan. Villagers rallied under a sweltering sun to condemn the choice of their county, Seongju, which is about 135 miles southeast of Seoul,, for the” THAAD missile defense system. “South Korea and the United States say the powerful missile and radar system is needed to defend the country, and American forces stationed here, against North Korean missiles. [Source: Choe Sang Hun, New York Times, July 13, 2016]
“But residents fear it will threaten their health and ruin their agricultural economy. “We oppose THAAD with our lives!” the residents chanted, holding banners that bore the same slogan. Local political leaders, wearing red headbands, wrote the same vow in blood after cutting their fingers, a dramatic form of protest that has a long history in South Korea. Some of the politicians and protest leaders also began a hunger strike. “If we lose our precious land to THAAD, we will be ashamed before our ancestors and posterity,” Kim Hang-gon, who oversees the Seongju county government, told the crowd, many of them aging melon farmers, according to the news agency Yonhap. The county, which has a population of about 50,000, provides 60 percent of all melons sold in South Korea.
“After South Korea and the United States announced the agreement to deploy THAAD on Friday, local news reports mentioned Seongju and several other towns as possible sites. Protests against THAAD have since been held in those communities. Some demonstrators expressed concern that hosting the system could make their towns high-priority targets for North Korea in the event of war. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that the THAAD battery would be installed at an existing South Korean Air Force radar and missile base on a mountain in Seongju. The South Korean unit will be moved elsewhere, it said. The deployment in Seongju will allow the THAAD system’s interceptor missiles to protect from half to two-thirds of the country from North Korean missiles, the ministry said. It said the radar system would be positioned in such a way that its powerful signals would pose no threat to human health, an assurance that villagers in Seongju did not accept.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021