Subscribe

SEOUL — A South Korean woman admitted in Seoul court Thursday that she set a March fire on a U.S. military base to publicize her fight to rejoin her family in America, according to court testimony.

Kweon Jung-ja, 57, has spent years trying to garner help to return to her U.S. husband and Korean-born sons in the States, but her one-person protests near U.S. facilities fell on deaf ears, her lawyer said. She decided to change from her self-proclaimed peaceful protests to a more violent one after a U.S. military police member in March called her crazy and a liar, her lawyer said after the court proceeding.

During her 30-minute court appearance, Kweon at times cursed and shouted her answers to the Seoul Western District Court judge, accusing authorities of kidnapping her and railing at both U.S. and South Korean governments for not helping her renew her U.S. visa. She also accused court officials of terrorism as she admitted to arson and to trespassing on government property.

“I was kidnapped … put forcibly into Gongju Correctional Facility,” Kweon told the judge about her custody since the March 16 fire. “I need to know that by what standards am I condemned to be an insane person?”

South Korean authorities have determined Kweon suffers from some mental illness but is competent to stand trial.

Arson typically carries a three-year sentence, but prosecutor Park Gyu-taek has sought a five-year confinement in a facility where Kweon could receive medical treatment. Park sought the more severe sentence because three Korean Service Corps workers were burned in the fire that swept through two Yongsan Garrison buildings and a third on an adjacent military base.

All three still are being treated and one still is hospitalized, Korean union officials said last week.

Kweon’s sentencing is to be June 1.

A U.S. Forces Korea spokesman declined to comment on Thursday’s court proceedings. South Korean authorities have jurisdiction over the fire probe.

In court Thursday, Kweon’s court-appointed lawyer asked her about the night of the fire.

“On March 16, did you ever trespass on Yongsan, U.S. military base, through … Gate 22?” asked Kim Hyung-guk.

“Yes,” Kweon, wearing a prison uniform, answered loudly.

“Did you set a fire on work-gloves with the lighter at the on-post carpentry (shop)?” Kim asked.

“Yes,” she repeated.

South Korean police have said Kweon began the fire near a carpentry area inside the Korean Service Corps compound near Yongsan Garrison’s Gate 1. A few Korean workers had returned to their office to sleep after drinking and dining at an off-base union banquet. Two of them have admitted leaving Gate 22 unlocked.

Kweon’s lawyer told the court his client began her protests near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and at Yongsan Garrison years ago.

In the early 90s, Kweon was a widow with two sons when she traveled to America, her lawyer said in court. She met and married an American man but then received notice she owed money to a credit card company. She returned to South Korea to dispute the charges, her lawyer said.

She was unsuccessful — but the credit card company succeeded in blocking her departure.

Her husband traveled to South Korea in 1993 to seek her return but failed, Kim said. At some point her visa expired.

She began her one-person protests some time thereafter, continuing in court Thursday by denouncing all of South Korea’s former presidents by name.

Judge Kim Yun-kweon let her speak for a few minutes, then asked her to put her thoughts in a letter. She continued to talk. In the end, two guards escorted her back to a secure waiting room.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up