SEOUL — A U.S. soldier was in stable condition Sunday after police shot him during an early-morning car chase that South Korean officials say started after they received emergency calls about gunshots being fired near a busy Itaewon intersection.
Details remained sketchy several hours later, including whether the soldier had fired BBs or pellets at bystanders in front of the Hamilton Hotel or might have just pointed a toy gun at them.
South Korean police said they received emergency calls at 11:53 p.m. Saturday about shots being fired by a soldier, according to an official with the Yongsan Police Station’s Fifth Violent Crimes Team. Police tried to capture him at the nearby Itaewon subway station, but he and a second soldier escaped by car.
Police followed the two soldiers by taxi for about half an hour to the Gwangjin district in eastern Seoul. During the chase, police fired one blank warning shot and three live rounds, hitting the driver. He was described as the shooter, with differing accounts saying he used a BB or pellet gun. One South Korean police officer described the weapon as a “toy gun.”
It was not immediately clear whether police knew if a real or fake gun was involved, and whether South Korean police followed proper procedure by shooting at the servicemembers. Another Yongsan police official said police fired shots because they believed the car posed a threat to them.
Police said no other injuries were reported during the incident. However, a source close to the investigation said one South Korean police officer sustained a minor injury.
Yongsan police said both soldiers escaped following the incident near the hotel, though police were able to identify the alleged shooter as a 23-year-old private first class and the second soldier as a 26-year-old staff sergeant. It was unclear whether those were their Korean ages, which are typically counted as a year older than under the American system.
The first Yongsan police official said police have not yet interviewed the soldiers but expect to do so on Tuesday. No charges have been filed.
8th Army spokesman Col. Andrew Mutter said Sunday that two to three individuals were believed to be involved in the incident, but he could not immediately confirm other information, saying the incident was under investigation by South Korean police. He also said he did not have information about the weapon allegedly used by the soldier.
One of the Yongsan police officials said police believe the two servicemembers were drunk. However, initial tests for intoxicating substances did not indicate the presence of alcohol, according to an Eighth Army statement.
The statement said the injured servicemember was being treated at Yongsan’s Brian Allgood Community Hospital.
“Although the details of this incident are unclear, we take all incidents involving U.S. servicemembers in the local community very seriously and will work closely with the Korean National Police as they continue their investigation,” the statement quoted Brig. Gen. Chris Gentry, Eighth Army deputy commanding general, as saying.
The statement added: “Eighth Army’s relationship with the Korean community is very important and we regret this unfortunate incident.”
Mutter said Gentry, along with U.S. Army Garrison commander Col. Michael Masley, visited Yongsan District Police Chief Woo Jong Soo on Sunday afternoon to apologize and express regret for the incident. During the 25-minute meeting, which Mutter described as “very productive,” Gentry expressed his full support for the investigation.
Mutter said the soldiers involved, who are assigned to Eighth Army and are stationed at Yongsan, are being interviewed by the military’s Criminal Investigation Command. South Korean police are also participating in those interviews, he said.
The Hamilton Hotel is located at a busy intersection in the heart of Itaewon, a popular restaurant and bar district just outside U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan that is typically crowded with expats and South Koreans on weekend nights.
Guns are banned in South Korea, where only police and the military are allowed to carry them. U.S. troops conducting off-base patrols no longer carry guns following a July 2012 incident outside Osan Air Base in which town patrol members handcuffed South Korean civilians during a dispute over an illegally parked car.