SEOUL — Don’t ask American troops about their weight, income or the costs of their houses or cars. Don’t get closer than three feet while chatting or touch them on the back or shoulders — they’ll think you’re hitting on them. And if you take them to dinner, don’t burp or loosen your belt.
Those are among the suggestions in a new book being distributed to South Korean police, for whom interacting with U.S. servicemembers on both a personal and professional level has long been an enigma, according to the author, former Pyeongtaek police chief Park Sang Yung.
The 238-page “SOFA Patrol English Guidebook” and accompanying CD are essentially a primer on American culture, with explanations of behavioral nuances and sprinkled with translations of quotes from movies including “Forrest Gump” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But most of the book focuses on more serious issues: the U.S. military and its legal system, and how both impact South Korean police investigations involving U.S. troops.
“South Korean police ought to understand American culture,” said Park, who recently retired but also previously served as chief of the Dongducheon Police Station. “But the U.S. ought to understand the South Korean legal culture, too.”
The guidebook contains English phrases that police might use in encounters with American servicemembers, both those in law enforcement and those in trouble with the law. It also offers an explanation of the Status of Forces Agreement, which offers legal protections to the U.S. military community beyond those found in Korean law.
Park said South Korean police are under “vague” orders to abide by the SOFA, but many don’t know how what those rules are or how to apply them to real-life situations — such as a high-profile altercation outside Osan Air Base last summer that prompted him to write the book.
Seven U.S. security forces were investigated for handcuffing several South Korean men following a parking dispute outside Osan. The incident led to criticism that the military was overstepping its bounds by enforcing local civilian ordinances outside the base. Military officials claimed the airmen believed the illegally parked car posed a force protection threat.
U.S. military officials quickly apologized for the incident. Park, who was head of the Pyeongtaek police station when the incident took place, believed the airmen should have been prosecuted for making illegal arrests, but they eventually were allowed to leave when their tours in South Korea ended, with an understanding that they would return if needed for further questioning.
Park blamed the incident on “miscommunication” between the U.S. military and South Korean law enforcement, and a mutual lack of understanding about the two countries’ legal systems.
“It would have been good if South Korean police had been able to say to the U.S. security forces, ‘Remove their handcuffs!’ or ‘Turn over the men to us’ in English,” he said. “I wish the (U.S. security forces) could have called the Korean police directly and said ‘Come to the scene’ instead of calling their interpreter at the base. I think U.S. troops need to be able to speak simple Korean words.”
The book explains several controversial SOFA cases, including the 2011 rape of a South Korean teenager by Pvt. Kevin Lee Flippin, which led to the reinstatement of a curfew for USFK troops, and the 2002 deaths of two South Korean girls who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle.
The incident prompted rioting and demonstrations against USFK, and anger that the two soldiers involved were not tried in South Korean court. Park explained in his book that because the soldiers were on duty at the time, the case fell under U.S. military jurisdiction.
English dialogue in the book covers a range of situations, from breathalyzer tests to traffic accidents to domestic violence calls involving U.S. troops, which Park said South Korean police respond to frequently. Most South Korean police officers speak little English, he said, and are forced to rely on South Korean troops assigned to the U.S. Army, called Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army, for translation during law enforcement situations.
“There may be problems with whether the KATUSAs’ interpretations are correct,” he said. “Moreover, we wonder if USFK’s official interpreters are interpreting properly.”
The guidebook is being distributed to police stations in the Osan area, to other stations across the country in cities with large populations of foreigners and to officials at Osan and Camp Humphreys, Park said.