General has no plans to end year-old curfew for troops in South Korea
SEOUL — The U.S. Forces Korea commander has no immediate plans to rescind an unpopular off-installation curfew that he imposed a year ago following several high-profile crimes involving U.S. servicemembers.
“The commander intends to leave the curfew in place for the time being given our overall readiness requirements,” USFK spokeswoman Col. Amy Hannah said in an email to Stars and Stripes.
Gen. James Thurman enacted the curfew on Oct. 7, 2011, after two rapes of South Korean teenagers in their homes by U.S. soldiers sparked nationwide protests and calls to change the status of forces agreement, which was widely viewed as being too lenient on U.S. troops.
In the more visible of the two cases, Pvt. Kevin Lee Flippin was given 10 years in prison for brutally raping a teen in her boarding house, the longest sentence imposed on a U.S. servicemember by a South Korean court in 20 years. Pvt. Kevin Robinson was sentenced to six years for raping a 17-year-old at her home and stealing her laptop. He is appealing, claiming the two had only consensual oral sex after a night of drinking.
Thurman declined interview requests from Stars and Stripes to discuss the curfew. In response to questions asking him to assess the past year, USFK’s public affairs office responded in several instances by saying he continues to review the curfew on a regular bases and by reiterating comments made in the months after the curfew took effect.
Asked why Thurman believes the curfew is still needed, Hannah repeated part of a Jan. 3 news release: “We must remain focused on our primary mission here, which is to deter against external aggression and if required, defend the Republic of Korea side-by-side with our ROK counterparts…I anticipate and expect that our servicemembers will continue to maintain the highest standards of individual readiness and professionalism while they serve in the Republic of Korea.”
During a visit to the peninsula in May, Marine Corps Sgt. Major Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the curfew was the issue raised most often by troops with whom he spoke.
USFK was under a curfew for nearly nine years until the previous USFK commander, now-retired Gen. Walter Sharp, ended it in July 2010.
“I believe that we can trust our servicemembers to do the right thing,” Sharp said at the time. “I personally believe in personal responsibility and making that the top thing that we do with our servicemembers, rather than trying to impose restrictions on them because of the acts of a very, very few.”
Thurman initially imposed a 30-day curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. on weekdays, and 3 to 5 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. He later extended it indefinitely and modified it to 1 to 5 a.m., seven days a week.
The number of off-post drinking-related incidents on the peninsula increased by 53 percent during the first fiscal quarter of 2012, roughly the first three months the curfew was in place, compared with the preceding quarter.
A high number of curfew violations prompted Thurman to issue a memo in February calling out leaders for a lack of self-discipline after more than 50 officers and noncommissioned officers were caught violating the curfew during the first fiscal quarter of 2012.
“I cannot and will not tolerate the actions of officers and NCOs who lack self-discipline and choose to intentionally disregard an existing lawful military order that it is their duty to uphold…This displays not only a lack of judgment, but a disregard for the values of our profession and sets an extremely poor example to the very servicemembers who we are charged to lead.,” the memo said.
The curfew was widely applauded in South Korea, where it was seen as a sign of the military’s willingness to tackle a perceived increase in USFK crime.
South Korean police say they want some version of curfew to continue.
“Nowadays, there’s almost no crimes committed by U.S. troops,” an Itaewon police officer said, adding that fewer servicemembers are spending time in the popular entertainment district outside U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul. A National Police Agency spokesman also said the curfew had helped lower crime, though the agency has no plans to ask USFK to continue it.
Pyeongtaek police chief Park Sang Yung said the curfew has served its purpose in preventing USFK crime. He wants it to remain in place, with the start delayed by an hour until 2 a.m., to ease the mass rush and “confusion” of soldiers returning to base early Saturday and Sunday mornings to beat the curfew.
Business owners, however, had a different take.
A typical response came from Yu Hong Chun, owner of Cheers bar in Dongducheon, who said his business is suffering due to the curfew and that troops can find ways around it.
“Some U.S. soldiers hide somewhere and wait until 5 a.m. Some hang out at bars or clubs since MPs are not patrolling during that time,” he said. Even with fewer hours to party off-post, he still sees troops getting drunk and fighting, or sometimes undressing in public.
He said a better option for deterring crime would be to limit how far troops could go outside their installations, perhaps to one or two kilometers. Such a measure would allow better supervision by MPs, and, he acknowledged, drum up sales for businesses around the bases.
TROOPS CAUGHT VIOLATING CURFEW
October 2011: 33
November 2011: 59
December 2011: 74
January 2012: 34
February 2012: 30
March 2012: 45
April 2012: 50
May 2012: 31
June 2012: 34
July 2012: 29
August 2012: 31
Source: U.S. Forces Korea