Tenth anniversary of girls killed by US military armored vehicle

Posted on : 2012-06-12 13:51 KST Modified on : 2012-06-12 13:51 KST
Ten years after tragedy, girls’ families and communities still struggle with painful memories
 the road was widened and a sidewalk was built. (by Kim Kyung-ho
the road was widened and a sidewalk was built. (by Kim Kyung-ho

By Jin Myeong-seon, staff reporter

It has been ten years now since two young Korean girls were fatally struck by an armored US military vehicle. It was an incident that raised questions about the basic nature of the South Korea-US alliance and resulted in the country’s first candlelight vigils. The passion would end up carrying through to the presidential election in December of 2002. On June 6, the Hankyoreh visited Yangju, Gyeonggi province where Hyo-sun and Mi-seon where lived.

At around 10 am on June 13, 2002, fourteen-year-old Hyo-sun left her home in Yangju. It was the day before her birthday, and a day of local elections across the country. For the holiday, friends were planning to celebrate her birthday a day early. They made arrangements to meet at the house of Yeong-mi, a friend whose family ran a local restaurant.

On her way to the party, Hyo-sun stopped at the house of her friend Mi-seon, also 14. The restaurant was about 30 minutes away along Rural Road 56. As they always did when going to and from school, the girls walked side by side along the edge of the two-lane road.

Also traveling along the road were armored vehicles that had left their training site in the village of Mugeon in nearby Paju. They were heading to a training site in Deokdo Village near Hyochon.

At around 10:45 am, the two girls had ascended an uphill road curving to the left when they were hit by two armored vehicles driven by USFK personnel. Together, the two vehicles were more than wide enough to cover the shoulder of the road. Hyo-sun and Mi-seon’s short lives came to end just 300 meters short of Yeong-mi’s family’s restaurant.

Hyo-sun’s mother, 50-year-old Jeon Myeong-ja, was reluctant to recall the events of ten years prior. Speaking on the telephone prior to the visit, she repeated, “You don’t have to come. It’s not anything good. You don’t have to come.” When told that a tenth anniversary memorial was being held in Seoul, she wiped something away - whether it was sweat or tears was unclear - and curtly said, “I can’t go. I don’t want to go.”

Perhaps out of a desire to see the reporter off, Jeon assigned some blame to the victims. “When I look at it now, it doesn’t seem like the USFK was in the wrong. Our children made a mistake. Walking on that narrow road without knowing that they did training in the morning. . . it was our children’s mistake.”

The father, Sin Hyeon-su, 58, was out in a rice field fixing a water pump. When he raised his gaunt face and saw the reporter, he hurried into the house. He didn’t say a word, but he made it clear that he didn’t wish to speak. After seeing his own daughter die before him, Sin himself underwent surgery for gastric cancer two years ago. His lungs filled with air just after the surgery, leading to another operation this past May. His weight was down from 70 to 50 kilograms.

Mi-seon’s home is not far away. Her older brother, 28-year-old Gyu-jin, was taking advantage of the day off to rest. He didn‘t welcome attention from the reporter. “I’ve often felt used,” he said. “I’m grateful that people out there are paying their respects, but all of us in the family would like to remember her privately now.”

Father Sim Su-bo, 58, was not home at the time, perhaps because he had heard word of the visit in advance. A quiet man, Sim tries to avoid meeting with either the press or members of social groups, neighbors reported.

The reaction of the two fathers was very different from June 13, 2003, when they attended the first anniversary memorial at Seoul City Hall Square. At that time, they called for an amendment of the Status of Forces Agreement to ensure that such a thing never happened again. The passage of time has left visible signs of exhaustion on Hyo-sun and Mi-seon’s family members.

Sim U-geun, a teacher at Pyeongtaek‘s Cheongok Middle School who chairs the executive committee for a council to erect a memorial to the two girls, has observed the families closely over the past years. “Back when the incident happened, I remember Mi-seon’s father getting very angry after hearing that people with a mediating group called the Korea-US Good Will Society were spreading rumors that [the family members] were after compensation money for their children’s lives.”

But time has blunted even this rage. Sim recalled, “After that, he would sometimes say, 'Shouldn’t the living get on with their lives?’”

The two families are still farming in Hyochon village. Their financial situation hasn‘t improved, and the misfortunes have continued. After Hyo-sun’s father was diagnosed with gastric cancer, her uncle suddenly died while visiting for the Chuseok holiday. On the very same day, Mi-seon’s uncle died when he slipped while hiking in the mountains.

Yeong-mi, the friend who had been waiting for Hyo-sun and Mi-seon that day, carries her own scars. Villagers said that she became the target of anger and resentment from friends, who said the girls “died because of you.” The three were attending the same middle school, but while other friends all went on to a high school in Uijeongbu, Yeong-mi attended one in Paju. Now 24, she works at a company in Seoul. Her father said, “She had a really rough time when it happened. Even now, she hates to talk about it.”

In 2008, the group Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea asked her to be a part of a committee to put up a memorial. She declined. “My wounds haven’t healed yet,” she explained at the time. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

The tradition of the candlelight vigil began ten years ago in this small village, when students at nearby Uijeongbu Girls’ High School held a rally holding candles. This was the origin of the “Candle Girl” mascot. On Dec. 19, 2002, the Hankyoreh printed a story about high school girls taking part in a candlelight vigil. One of them was Gang Mi-jeong, now 28. A friend of Mi-seon’s who was then a senior at Uijeongbu Girls’ High School, Gang was an active participant in the vigils, but no longer. The decade in between has changed that ebullient teenager, too.

“When I was in high school, I was loud, impetuous, and very active,” she said. “But I got out in the world and saw how different reality is from what I believed, and I think it’s kind of made me quiet.” Gang is now director of an academy and a freelance television journalist.

There were minor changes in Hyochon after the tragedy. “The USFK has been very conscious of the reaction since the accident,” a villager said. “They seem to mostly travel at night.” The armored vehicles that do move through the area now must have a soldier positioned on the roof observing the vehicle’s path.

Yeong-mi’s father said, “Things have gotten a lot better now. Back then, pregnant cows would miscarry whenever the US tanks fired a six-inch shell. Pregnant women from the neighborhood went up to the mountains when firing time came around.”

But there are things that even the girls’ deaths couldn’t change. South Korean army tanks still pass regularly through the village. Plans are under way to nearly double the size of the Mugeon training site from its current 18.5 million square meters to 36.4 million square meters. The village’s 120 families and 600 people see it as only a matter of time before they end up being forced out.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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