A tragedy that touched off turmoil
Stars and Stripes June 13, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — If ever there was a polarizing event in the U.S. military’s recent history in South Korea, it occurred June 13, 2002.
As millions of Koreans celebrated the World Cup tournament, two soldiers in a U.S. armored vehicle drove up a hill on Highway 56, accidentally crushing two 13-year-old Korean schoolgirls on their way to a birthday party.
Soon after, the faces of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-soon were posted on giant placards with black ribbons tied diagonally on top, a Korean custom after death. The tragedy became the impetus for massive demonstrations questioning the presence of 37,000 U.S. servicemembers in South Korea as a defense against North Korea.
On Friday, rallies near U.S. military installations and around the country will commemorate their deaths.
“I just hope that the U.S. respects the Korean people as they do their own people,” said Shim Su-bo, father of Mi-son.
Chon Myong-ja, the mother of Hyo-soon, said she doesn’t know how long people will remember the accident; she fears most soon will forget. Her daughter would have turned 14 June 3.
“I went to her grave and brought some flowers for her,” the mother said. “That was all I could do for her.”
The accident likely was only a blip on the international news radar in the United States. But across South Korea, it burgeoned into a massive and often violent movement to eject U.S. forces in place since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
In six months of turmoil, activists threw Molotov cocktails at U.S. bases. Koreans attacked U.S. soldiers. And for many Koreans their image of America — among older Koreans, that of a valuable brother — was changed.
The tragedy “became a catalyst,” said Kim Choong-nam, a project fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii. “Many people who had distrusted or were suspicious of American policies in Korea tried to make their case more powerful.”
Protest groups seized on the incident as a platform for their causes. Average Koreans wondered how such an accident could occur on their soil, South Korean newspapers reported. And the U.S. military struggled to counter South Korean media reports that portrayed it as unconcerned about safety measures and disrespectful of South Korea.
The South Korean media reported that the driver intentionally hit the girls to avoid an accident with another U.S. vehicle, and that a soldier involved was seen laughing after the incident. Neither proved true.
But the media had a strong impact on Koreans’ views, said Shin Gi-wook, acting director of Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center.
“From a purely legal perspective, I don’t think there is much the U.S. military can do other than what they did,” Shin said. “The Korean media had to be responsible for fueling some anti-American sentiment and escalating those issues.”
Then, in November, Sgt. Fernando Nino, commander of the vehicle that crushed the girls, and Sgt. Mark Walker, the driver, were acquitted of negligent homicide in U.S. military court — heating to the scorching point friction with the Koreans who wanted the Americans tried in South Korean courts.
Media reports and accusations became even more intense. U.S. Forces Korea often countered with its own news releases. But the damage was done: Misinformation spread by independently run Web sites fueled protest groups. The well-organized, well-designed sites promoted rallies outside U.S. military installations throughout the country.
“The Internet as a communication network enabled better organization, but in terms of disseminating information, it’s debatable whether the Internet is actually more information or misinformation,” said Chun S. Moon, Asia Foundation program officer and Korean public opinion expert.
But one Asia expert — Mark Monahan, University of Maryland Asian studies professor — said the events also illustrated a need to rethink how the U.S. military deals with such controversy.
Instead of “drawing a curtain,” U.S. forces needed to better illustrate why they are in South Korea, he said: “U.S. forces in Korea ... should have better policies to deal with the Korean populace because this is not 1950. This is the 21st century. The time has arrived to show the Koreans we are friends and we are not here to dictate.”
The military appears to have attempted that over the past year. After the accident, apologies rippled from a host of top officials, including U.S. generals, U.S. Ambassador Thomas A. Hubbard and President Bush.
But some media critics contended the apologies were unsatisfactory. Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, USFK commander, issued an apology about a month after the incident — and a national English-language South Korean newspaper read that as renouncing investigators’ conclusion that the tragedy was an accident. The paper editorialized, “We welcome his statement, albeit belated. What is unfortunate is that he failed to explain why he had to reverse the U.S. military’s stance to account for the death of the two innocent teenagers.”
Six days after the incident, the military ruled it an accident. It said Walker could not see the right side of the roadway because of a blind spot. Heavy radio traffic also prevented him from hearing warnings sooner.
Since then, the U.S. military has stepped up safety measures for its troops training near South Korean civilian communities.
Further, as a result of a joint U.S.-South Korean task force formed after the two girls’ deaths, the command promised to speed payments to victims of accidents involving the U.S. military.
The 2nd Infantry Division promised to better notify local communities when convoys are to move through their areas. South Korea pledged wider roads and clearer signage where U.S. troops train. LaPorte instituted a Good Neighbor Program, designed to enhance understanding between the two nations.
Experts also said the Highway 56 tragedy didn’t trigger, but did contribute to, the drastic changes announced last week. Officials said they’d eventually move 6,000 soldiers at Yongsan Garrison to Camp Humphreys in Pyongtaek and send the 2nd Infantry Division at least 75 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
The incident “didn’t do it alone but at the same time facilitated the changes,” Shin said. Older Koreans — many of whom remember the Korean War — are very supportive of U.S. troops. But the younger generation is demanding “more independence from the United States” and probably some reduction in U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, Shin added.
The demands were so vociferous that the tragedy affected South Korea’s presidential election. The sergeants’ acquittals, which came less than a month before the vote, “just added fuel to the flame” of the campaign, said Moon. “One of the things that could have been very different was to hold the trial after the presidential election.”
Candidate Roh Moo-hyun won after waging a campaign stressing he wouldn’t “kowtow” to the United States. But even before he formally assumed office, Roh was easing his stance in the face of North Korean threats to resume its nuclear program.
After his election, Roh backed off amid the tensions, calling on anti-U.S. groups to halt their candlelight vigils.
Many Koreans — especially those who remember or served in the Korean War — staged equally massive rallies in downtown Seoul supporting U.S. forces. After North Korea announced in October it was pursuing nuclear weapons despite agreements it would not, pro-U.S. supporters argued the presence of U.S. soldiers is needed as a deterrent.
And Roh recently met with President Bush in Washington. Both presidents condemned North Korea’s nuclear moves, glossing over rumored policy glitches between the two countries. They pledged to work multilaterally to discourage North Korea’s nuclear moves.
The incident had one other effect. It ignited a fierce debate about the U.S.-South Korean status of forces agreement, which dictates that on-duty accidents — whether on or off post — fall under the purview of U.S. military courts.
The agreement dictates how U.S. soldiers are treated under the law. A special task force, which formed in December, began looking at how better to implement the SOFA, signed in 1966. Among its initial recommendations: agreements about speeding accident payments and widening roads.
Overall, though, experts including Moon predicted the girls’ deaths will have no long-lasting effects. Koreans aligned with both anti- and pro-U.S. movements will continue to push their agendas, he predicted. In time, they’ll sort through the incident’s facts minus the emotions that often have swirled around the past year’s events, he said.
“In terms of people who had always been against the stationing here, I don’t think it would have made it any worse,” Moon said.
And those who favored the presence of U.S. forces, Moon said, still feel “pretty much the same.”
— Choe Song-won contributed to this report.