SEOUL — The U.S. Forces Korea commander issued an apology and five Osan Air Base security forces were suspended from town patrol duties after they handcuffed two South Koreans during an altercation over an illegally parked car and local television aired a potentially inflammatory video of the incident.
The Thursday incident has sparked separate investigations by the U.S. military and South Korean police. South Korean officials said the security forces overstepped their authority while acting just outside the base.
Amid concerns about possible anti-American sentiment in a country where the U.S. military is under constant scrutiny, 7th Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas said Sunday he had met with USFK commander Gen. James Thurman and Lee Baek-soon, director general of the foreign ministry’s North America bureau, who also is South Korea’s chairman on the Status of Forces Agreement Joint Committee. A ministry statement said it has lodged a “serious complaint.”
Thurman issued a statement announcing he has ordered an investigation.
“I am very sorry this occurred,” he said. “I want to express my sincere apology to the individuals and community affected by the incident.”
The airmen will remain suspended pending the outcome of the U.S. military investigation, and the military will cooperate with the South Korean probe, Thurman said.
The military and Pyeongtaek officials have released sometimes conflicting information about the incident.
An initial statement from Osan said three airmen were involved in the incident. Pyeongtaek police chief Park Sang Yung said Sunday that seven airmen were involved, three of whom were questioned Saturday by South Korean police. He said he hopes the other four will be questioned this week.
Seventh Air Force spokesman Maj. Eric Badger said Sunday night that five airmen had provided witness statements to South Korean police. He noted that their suspension from town patrol duties “is administrative and not punitive. It is standard procedure during the investigation process.”
Park said that handcuffing the men was “inappropriate” and illegal. He said South Korean police do not handcuff civilians.
“The public believes that USFK works only in its barracks,” he said. “It’s an exceptional action for them to handcuff South Korean civilians, and it isn’t authorized by South Korean law.”
The initial statement from Osan also said three South Korean men assaulted three Osan security forces personnel, while the 7th Air Force said Monday night that only two South Koreans were temporarily handcuffed.
According to Osan, the security forces personnel had asked them to move a vehicle at 8:37 p.m. from the Sinjang mall area, citing force protection reasons.
Osan said parking in Sinjang, a popular pedestrian shopping area just outside the base, is banned at night by the city of Songtan to keep pedestrians safe. All three South Koreans were affiliated with Sinjang establishments.
The airmen then “executed their right to self-defense and restrained the Korean nationals,” then called South Korean police for assistance, an Osan statement said. Meanwhile, a large crowd gathered and threatened the airmen’s safety, the statement said.
The South Koreans were moved to an area near the front of the base to de-escalate the situation, and South Korean police arrived and took custody of them, Osan said.
Park, however, said no protesters were present, though several passersby captured images of the altercation and sent them to South Korean television stations.
According to Park, the airmen asked the car owner to move his vehicle from a no-parking zone 100 to 150 yards from the base, in an area that security forces regularly patrol for signs of possible terrorism. The owner replied that only South Korean police or Pyeongtaek city officials could order him to move his car.
Park said a scuffle then broke out between the car owner and the airmen, with the South Korean sustaining bruises on his arm and scratches on his knee. He told South Korean police that the security forces tied his arms and made him kneel on the ground; the airmen told police that the South Korean threatened and hit them.
Park said the South Korean men were detained for 20 to 30 minutes, and have not been charged.
Jouas also apologized for the “unfortunate incident.”
“We will thoroughly evaluate our town patrol procedures and ensure they are in accordance with SOFA and USFK regulations and guidelines,” Jouas said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
“I assure you that we are taking this incident very seriously and are profoundly committed to conducting ourselves within the parameters established by USFK and the SOFA, with complete respect for the laws of the Republic of Korea and the rights of its citizens,” he said.
Badger said the military will begin its investigation Monday and conclude it within 30 days. He said Sunday there had been no reports of demonstrations or possible threats against the military since the incident.
He said USFK regulations restrict when security forces personnel can restrain non-military individuals, and the use of handcuffs is permitted only when necessary to prevent injury or to protect military resources considered vital to national security. The U.S. military investigation will look at whether the use of handcuffs in Sinjang complied with regulations, he said.