CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Former Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Bates can talk to his biological father, but he cannot touch him.
Bates’ father, Sung Nak-ju, is a South Korean death-row inmate.
On Friday, the movie “My Father” debuts to the South Korean public, chronicling Bates’ search for his biological father and his relationship with his adopted American parents.
Bates’ biological mother died when he was 7 months old and Sung couldn’t take care of him.
He was adopted in the late 1970s by Graham and Rebecca Bates, who adopted three more South Korean children.
He remains close to them and they supported his reconciliation with Sung.
Despite Sung’s crime, Bates said the movie — to be released Friday — has a positive message about adoption.
“Korea looks at adoption as not a very good thing,” Bates said. “If you’re not in the bloodline, you’re not family. I want this to show the people of Korea that adoption does work.”
Bates, 34, a former medic, came to Camp Humphreys in 1996 and waited six months before searching for his father.
“I waited because I wanted to find a (South Korean soldier) or someone who could help that would follow through,” he said.
His South Korean military augmentee roommate, Kim So-yung, helped Bates visit a Seoul adoption agency and the woman who ran a Gwangju orphanage where Bates lived until he was 5.
When the trail ran cold Bates went on with his Army career, attending Ranger school, and then qualifying for the Special Forces in 1999.
Sung eventually learned that Bates was searching for him and sent him a letter during his son’s Special Forces training.
Bates went to visit his father a few months later.
Before seeing his father, Kim told Bates what he had heard — that Sung was on death row for murder.
Sung lived with a 49-year-old innkeeper near Seoul in 1994. After the woman’s 14-year-old daughter told Sung to leave, Sung killed the daughter in her sleep and dumped her mutilated body on a mountain, according to media reports and movie company Cineline spokesman Cho Dae-eun. A week later, he argued with the innkeeper and killed her, too.
In the movie, Sung is named Hwang and kills a woman and her son.
Sung was first in line to be executed at the time, though recent presidents haven’t carried out his sentence.
The death-row news shocked Bates. The media horde waiting for him at the train station surprised him further. When he met his father at the prison, photographers asked him to pose and bow in front of Sung.
Despite the circus-like atmosphere, Bates was excited to see his father and asked him questions about the rest of his biological family.
He avoided asking questions about Sung’s crime.
“Why remind somebody of that? He definitely regrets it. I can see it in his eyes that he truthfully regrets what he did,” Bates said.
Bates returned to South Korea later that year and was stationed at Yongsan Garrison before moving back to Camp Humphreys. During that time, while the soldier corresponded with his father, a South Korean network followed Bates for two years and produced a one-hour documentary on his life.
In 2004, movie production company Cineline called Bates, asking for his cooperation in making a movie about his life.
Sung will not receive any compensation for the movie, Bates said.