S. Korea may take pretrial custody of Army sergeant
December 23, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — An Army sergeant accused of killing a South Korean woman in a drunken-driving incident could become the first U.S. soldier held in pretrial custody by South Korean authorities.
If South Korean authorities take custody of Sgt. Jerry Onken before trial, it would mark the first use of a 2001 revision to the status of forces agreement with South Korea that allows South Korea to hold U.S. servicemembers before trial, if they’re accused of one or more of 12 serious felonies. Previously, servicemembers were given into South Korean custody only after the trial and appeals process.
Military authorities arrested Onken in connection with a Nov. 28 hit-and-run death of 22-year-old Ki Kyong-sun.
Under the SOFA, South Korea “always had the primary right to exercise jurisdiction in the overwhelming majority of cases involving crimes against Korean citizens,” U.S. Forces Korea officias said in a written statement.
Five U.S. servicemembers now are serving sentences in South Korean prisons after being found guilty in South Korean courts, USFK said.
South Korean prosecutors haven’t charged Onken, of the 143rd Air Defense Artillery, but he faces a charge of fleeing the scene of a fatal accident under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The U.S. military has asked South Korea if it may keep Onken in custody — a standard Defense Department practice, 8th Army officials said.
Under the status of forces agreement, South Korea’s government has until Jan. 10 to decide if it also will charge Onken; if it does, it then also can request pretrial custody.
Prosecutor Kwon Jong-hun of the 4th Prosecution Division of South Korea’s Justice Ministry said Friday he expects his office to seek custody but noted that the U.S. Army is not obligated to comply.
“Many Korean media reports are saying this is going to be the first case of pretrial custody, but being the first case is meaningless to me,” Kwon said. “We’d rather focus on the case itself ... see how serious this case is and if we really need to take him into custody according to SOFA.”
The SOFA agreement states that the United States will allow South Korean custody as long as certain conditions are met, such as reasonable grounds for the charge and if the accused is given a preliminary hearing and has access to counsel.
The U.S. military gave Ki’s family about $9,600 to help with the funeral expenses, the South Korean prosecutor said. The family also has filed a claim with the Suwon District Compensation Committee, said Prosecutor Kim Hoo-kon of the South Korean Justice Ministry’s Litigation Division.
Hankyoreh newspaper reported Monday the family has asked for $348,000. Kim said he could not confirm that amount but if the claim exceeds 50 million won, or about $43,000, the Justice Ministry will review it before forwarding it to the U.S. military.
USFK declined to comment Friday on payments made to the family but said one of the victim’s families requested an advance claim payment as allowed under the SOFA. Four other people were in the South Korean car involved in the fatal accident.
The case will be monitored closely “as this will be a good way to see if the revised SOFA really works,” said Kim Pan-tae of People’s Action for Reform of Unjust ROK-US SOFA Agreement, a prominent civic group. “It was a very serious crime. ... No reason to have mercy.”