South Korean officials: US agrees to review in-town patrols after Osan incident
SEOUL — The U.S. military has agreed to discuss possible changes to off-base military patrols following an altercation in which American security forces handcuffed at least two South Koreans over a parking dispute, South Korean officials said Monday.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official said the talks will include the scope of the patrols’ rights and authority after South Korean police said the security forces overstepped their bounds Thursday outside Osan Air Base.
U.S. Forces Korea did not immediately answer questions about the extent of the military’s authority to detain, arrest and question civilians outside installations. Top U.S. military officials have apologized for the incident.
No date has been set for the meeting, which South Korean officials requested over the weekend, the official said. A branch of the Status of Forces Agreement Joint Committee will likely address the matter, he said.
USFK did not immediately confirm whether such a meeting has been scheduled, but officials said over the weekend they would work with their hosts to ease potential friction.
There were concerns that the incident, which was recorded by passersby and aired on South Korean television, might spark a backlash. The grainy video showed people in civilian clothing surrounding the security patrol and the airmen roughly handling two men on the ground.
But public reaction has largely been muted, possibly because of the immediate American apologies.
An Osan security patrol handcuffed the South Koreans after asking one of them to move an illegally parked car about 100 to 150 meters from the base’s main gate in a pedestrian mall in the city of Songtan. The car was considered a force protection threat.
Details about the altercation remained unclear Monday, including how many South Koreans were handcuffed and how many U.S. airmen were involved. The 7th Air Force says five airmen were suspended from town patrol duties, but South Korean police say seven troops were involved. The military and police also differ on whether two or three South Koreans were handcuffed.
The military says the South Koreans assaulted the airmen and forced them to act in self-defense, but South Korean police say the security forces had no legal right to handcuff the men. South Korean police also dispute the military’s claim that a large crowd gathered and threatened the security patrol’s safety.
Both the U.S. military and South Korean police are conducting investigations.
In response to a question about why South Korean police responded “passively” to the incident, Kim Ki-yong, head of the National Police Agency, told a news conference Monday that the country should respect the judgment of South Korean police who were on the scene, according to several South Korean media reports. It was unclear how many local police were at the scene.
Kim Tong-min, head of the Korea Foreign Tourist Facility Association in Songtan, said Monday that local business owners have not decided yet whether to hold protests over last week’s incident, but are angry and fear that similar confrontations with USFK could scare away customers and hurt profits.
The incident also has raised concerns that the military patrols disregard both the safety of South Korean citizens and the authority of South Korean police, he said.
“We don’t know if South Korean police will be able to protect us or not if another incident like this happens,” Kim said.
The U.S. military is under constant scrutiny here for possible abuses of power, and missteps by the military have prompted large protests in the past as well as complaints about the SOFA.
The largest show of anti-Americanism came 10 years ago following the deaths of two 13-year-old South Korean girls who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle during a routine patrol near the Demilitarized Zone. Both soldiers in the vehicle were acquitted of negligent homicide, leading to massive demonstrations and public outcry.