S. Korea to review status of forces agreement with U.S.
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — South Korean government officials will meet in late November to determine whether to ask the United States to revise the status of forces agreement, in the midst of public anger over two separate sex crimes involving U.S. Army suspects.
The SOFA Joint Committee will review the wide-ranging bilateral agreement that sets ground rules for custody and prosecution of Defense Department personnel and their families, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official close to the proceedings told Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity Wednesday.
“People say SOFA has lots of problems, and policemen do so as well,” the official said. “Also, the media is raising a question about it, but it sometimes exaggerates or reports things groundlessly. So we will check whether the revisions on SOFA are necessary or not, like the media is saying.
“We will open up to possible revisions, and check from various angles in terms of internal examination, what difficulties police or prosecutors are experiencing.”
The committee meeting will include the Korean foreign ministry, the justice ministry, the national police and other government representatives, officials said.
U.S. Forces Korea officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday.
The reassessment of the agreement was precipitated by the indictment of a Camp Casey private first class, who South Korean police say entered the dormitory-style hotel room of an 18-year-old woman in Dongducheon and raped her on Sept. 24.
Police are also questioning a soldier in connection with the rape of a young woman in Seoul, according to media reports.
On Friday, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. James Thurman ordered a military curfew for 30 days, citing “concerns caused by a few of our soldiers who have failed to uphold our standards,” in a message to the roughly 28,000 servicemembers and 8,000 others covered by the SOFA.
The criminal incidents have touched off a torrent of media attention and civic protests, including a rally on Tuesday against both the SOFA and a pending bilateral trade agreement outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
Much of the SOFA controversy surrounds two popular perceptions voiced by protesters and commentators: that South Korean law enforcement officials do not have enough power to prosecute servicemembers suspected of crimes, and that the number of crimes committed by servicemembers is increasing.
A 2001 amendment to the long-standing SOFA allows South Korean authorities, if they ask, to retain custody of U.S. servicemembers following indictment for murder, sex crimes and multiple other heinous offenses.
Otherwise, South Korean authorities must transfer Defense Department servicemembers and civilians to U.S. custody upon request. The suspects must then be made available to South Korean law enforcement personnel for investigation and trial in South Korean court.
U.S status of forces agreements differ considerably in other countries. In Japan, for example, police may retain custody of servicemembers suspected of crimes for weeks without filing any charges.
Whether U.S. servicemembers are committing more crimes in South Korea is still somewhat unclear, though there are police figures that suggest at least a short-term increase.
Sexual assault and rape charges were down during the first six months of 2011, with two charges filed, according to Korean National Police figures obtained by Stars and Stripes on Wednesday. There were 11 sex crime charges in 2010 and five in 2009, according to the figures.
However, there have been 89 charges of assault and other crimes placed under the category of “violence” by police during the first six months of 2011. The pace exceeds the 154 violence charges last year, which itself was an increase from 100 charges in 2008.
Figures for actual convictions were unavailable Wednesday. However, when prosecutors elect to pursue police charges in court, it is exceedingly rare under the South Korean system of justice for a defendant to be found not guilty.
Also on Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae told reporters at a press briefing that there is “no plan yet” for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to discuss SOFA revision with President Barack Obama during their talks in Washington on Thursday. Lee is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress following a vote on the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement.
Yoo-Kyong Chang contributed to this report.