[Feature] Life in the shadow of a US military base

Posted on : 2012-07-13 14:43 KST Modified on : 2012-07-13 14:43 KST
Case of illegally detained Koreans raises question of Pyongtaek as de facto US territory
 American military and South Korean police restarted joint patrols of Rodeo Road in Pyongtaek. (by Kang Chang-kwang
American military and South Korean police restarted joint patrols of Rodeo Road in Pyongtaek. (by Kang Chang-kwang

By Lee Kyung-mi, staff reporter and Kim Gi-seong, south Gyeonggi correspondent

On July 5, United States Forces Korea (USFK) military police officers handcuffed three South Koreans on Rodeo Road in front of the Osan Air Base (K-55) in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province. The MPs proceeded to drag these individuals to the entrance of the base before they were eventually released. Three days later, USFK Commander James Thurman issued an apology. But the residents of Pyeongtaek, who have to live in the presence of USFK troops on a daily basis, were unappeased. In this piece, the Hankyoreh looks at an area of extraterritorial jurisdiction, where local authorities are powerless to stop abuses of South Korean human rights.

Mr. Yang, 35, had difficulty even talking about the incident. “It hurts just to remember it,” he said. “I don’t watch the video of it. If I do, I’ll see them and just. . . .”

He had calmed down somewhat by the time the Hankyoreh met him on July 9 in a section of Pyeongtaek’s Sinjang Shopping Mall that specializes in musical instruments. At around 8:30pm on July 5, he was eating dinner after parking two vehicles in front of his shop to move some items. USFK MPs saw the vehicles and told him that he had to remove them from the area, which was designated a no parking or stopping zone. Yang said he would do so after he finished eating. An argument ensued, and the MPs ended up pushing him to the floor and handcuffing him. Citizens began to gather around. When police arrived at the scene after emergency calls from citizens, the MPs had already taken Yang toward the entrance of the base. Another local resident, a 42-year-old named Shin, had also been subdued and handcuffed by MPs after attempting to stop them, and was found lying face down on the ground.

The place where Yang and Shin were handcuffed is known as “Rodeo Road.” The road faces the front of the Osan Air Base, where the US 7th Air Force and 51st Fighter Wing are stationed. Stretching for about 400 meters, the road is flanked on both sides by around 350 restaurants, bars, and shops, whose clientele consists mostly of USFK soldiers, civilian workers at the base, and their family members.

Pyeongtaek City Hall designated the area a pedestrian-only zone in 1996 in an effort to revitalize the commercial district. Bollards are positioned all along the road to prevent vehicles from entering. They are only taken down to allow cars to enter during the hours of 6 to 11 a.m.

But the restrictions were loosened after storeowners complained that they needed vehicle access in order to transport goods to their establishments. Some of them took down the bollards so they could park vehicles in front of their shop.

USFK was not happy about this, and asked the city for authority over the bollards, citing car bomb concerns. The city agreed. In May, it handed over the keys to unlock them. The two sides reached an agreement: USFK would have authority to crack down on vehicles on Rodeo Road between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

An official with Pyongtaek’s Songtan district office explained that staff and budget shortages made it impossible for the local officers to monitor vehicle entry 24 hours a day.

“We only gave USFK the key to unlock the bollards, not the authority to control vehicle traffic,” the official said. In other words, while USFK was granted authority to put up bollards to prevent vehicles from entering outside of designated hours, it was not given authority to crack down on vehicles that were already parked there.

Debate over jurisdiction

USFK bases themselves are extraterritorial jurisdictions, where South Korean legal authority does not apply. But the road in front of the base is unquestionably South Korean territory. With its actions, the city of Pyeongtaek granted USFK the right to stop South Koreans and their vehicles on South Korean land.

Once given the authority, USFK pushed the envelope. The incidents of July 5 would not have happened had the MPs who found the illegally parked car asked South Korean police to tow it or take other appropriate action. Instead, USFK overstepped its authority by demanding that a South Korean remove his vehicle, and then handcuffing him and dragging him away when he did not comply.

The actions of that day even went beyond the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and South Korea. That agreement states that USFK must turn over South Koreans when requested to do so by South Korean police, even when they have been arrested in an emergency situation.

But on July 5, the MPs ignored the demands of the South Korean police at the scene when they marched Yang and Shin toward the base entrance. Once there, they proceeded to handcuff Yang’s 32-year-old brother, who was protesting their actions. The local police stood by and watched the whole incident unfold, unable to exercise even the authority clearly granted to them by SOFA.

“The Korean police didn’t do anything while I was being dragged off by USFK,” Shin said.

SOFA states that USFK soldiers may patrol the area outside the base, but that they must be accompanied by South Korean police officers when they do so. But residents and merchants in the Rodeo Road area said the MPs do their town patrols alone on weekdays due to the lack of available police to accompany them. Had one been with the MPs according to the rules on July 5, the detention of South Koreans by USFK would never have happened.

“A lot of people around here think the Korean police might as well not even be here,” said a young woman who runs a street stall on Rodeo Road.

Another woman, the proprietor of a local bar, said, “One time, I called the police after a brawl erupted, and they told me, ‘The American soldiers are scary guys. Just tell them it was wrong.’ I was flabbergasted.”

 staff photographer)
staff photographer)

After the events of July 5, the police said they would be booking seven MPs for illegally detaining civilians. They were belatedly asserting their sovereign authority, but an investigation by the Hankyoreh found that the MPs are unlikely to be punished in South Korean court. Their claim is that they were legitimately performing their duties in cracking down on illegal stopping and parking around the base. SOFA states that the US has jurisdiction over incidents that occur in the course of USFK duties. There is a strong chance that South Korean prosecutors will turn the matter over to the US if they believe the duties were part of USFK duties, whatever the charges.

Park-Jeong Gyeong-su, secretary-general of National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, said there has never been any case of South Korea exercising its jurisdiction in a case involving acts committed in the course of USFK duties.

“The fact that the MPs are claiming they were legitimately performing their duties in preventing terrorist attacks by cracking down on illegal stopping and parking, and the USFK leadership is talking about doing its own independent investigation, seems to indicate that they plan to exercise jurisdiction in this case,” Park-Jeong said.

The trial over the 2002 deaths of Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, two middle school students who were struck and killed by a USFK armored vehicle, took place in the US after it was deemed to be a “crime committed on duty.” USFK was found not guilty in the case.

Many are saying the South Korean government needs to demand that the US give up jurisdiction.

“We’ll only really be able to stop things like this from happening if we actively assume jurisdiction on cases that involve major crimes or cause a big outcry,” said Gwon Jeong-ho, an attorney with Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

Trouble doing business

The shopowners and residents of Rodeo Road know first-hand how limited South Korean authority is. They are the ones who have to accommodate USFK even when they are subjected to unfair treatment.

“Obviously, it was wrong for them to handcuff people and drag them away, but we can’t let this lead to needless anti-Americanism,” said Eom, 50, who owns an odds and ends shop in the area.

USFK applies “off limits” policies on Rodeo Road. Authorities ban US soldiers from frequenting Korean-operated stores where illegal actions such as violence and prostitution have taken place. From the standpoint of the owners, whose clientele mainly comes from USFK, this is as good as having their business suspended.

In late June, a USFK soldier got into a fight with a South Korean club employee who tried to stop him from entering with alcohol in his bag. USFK issued a ten-day off limits order for the establishment. The same thing happened with another club where a fight broke out among dancing soldiers.

USFK says it has to do this because the establishments in question are considered dangerous. The owner of one bar that was ruled off limits over a violent episode explained, “They do give the businesses the opportunity to explain themselves, but it’s really just a formality. The decision depends on what the US soldiers say.”

Merchants in the area said that some of the soldiers who are aware of this have caused a scene and then threatened owners by telling them, “I can close your bar.”

In 1992, the city of Songtan and USFK signed an off limits agreement stating that they would ban soldiers from any establishments in the area that violated the law in terms of sanitation, health care, fire safety, or general safety. Pyeongtaek asked the USFK to scrap the agreement in 1997 after continued complaints that it was an illegitimate exercise of authority by USFK. But USFK continues operating the system by itself - another ongoing form of sovereignty violation.

At the moment, no one knows exactly what its standards are for ruling a place off limits. The survival rights of South Korean residents and merchants on the road are entirely in the hands of the USFK. Figures from the Songtan substation show that off limits orders lasting anywhere from one month to eight months were issued for two establishments in 2009, three in 2010, and four in 2011. Three have been made off limits so far in 2012.

“Domestic law is enough to prevent illegal things from happening here,” said Son Hyeon-sik, secretary-general of Pyeongtaek People’s Solidarity for Participation and Autonomy. “Instead, we have this situation where USFK continue to crack down without any legal basis, and the owners can‘t even lodge a complaint.”

“We need to be asking whether it is lawful for USFK troops to be walking around armed on Korean territory,” Son added.

Some of the local merchants organized a meeting Wednesday to consider a response to the recent incident. They plan to demand a meeting with the base commander to ask for measures to remedy the situation and prevent similar incidents from occurring. They are also organizing a rally to protest the incident.


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