USFK to ease curfew, driving restrictions
August 1, 2008
SEOUL — U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp said Wednesday that beginning Aug. 15 he will relax the curfew to let troops stay out two extra hours on weekends, and change USFK’s driving policy to let more troops buy their own cars and let all troops get driver’s licenses.
The new curfew will require troops to be indoors from 3 to 5 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and U.S.-observed holidays, instead of from 1 to 5 a.m. as now required. The midnight weekday curfew will not change.
"There’s a balance that I’ve got to make sure that I’m comfortable with," Sharp said of his decision to leave part of the curfew in place. "The balance is between allowing people to demonstrate that they can act responsibly and do that at any hour of the day or night, versus the effect that indiscipline has here in the Republic of Korea."
Under the new driving policy, all servicemembers will be able to get driver’s licenses, and all command-sponsored E-6s and below will be able to buy their own cars. In the past, the command-sponsored troops had to get permission to get a driver’s license or buy a car.
Sharp said he will re-evaluate both policy changes every six months.
Sharp, who assumed command of USFK in early June, decided to change the policies after meeting with troops across the peninsula during the first two months of his tenure. He said the decision to make the changes was "very difficult," but he doesn’t believe that troops will get into trouble if they’re allowed to stay out later.
"It goes back to my core belief that servicemembers will do the right thing. Don’t hold the great majority of people responsible for the acts of one or two," he said.
Sharp said the new policy will allow all enlisted troops — including those serving unaccompanied tours — to borrow or rent cars, even if they can’t buy them.
He said he can’t allow all troops to get cars because of a lack of parking spaces on military installations across the peninsula. But the new policy reflects what he would like to see if tours to South Korea are lengthened from one to three years, which he supports.
Because all servicemembers will be allowed to drive, Sharp said he is revising the driver’s license manual and test to include more information about liability.
In South Korea, all drivers are held responsible to some degree for an accident, even if they didn’t cause it.
Sharp said he met with troops of all ranks and ages before making his decision, particularly senior enlisted troops. Opinion was mixed, with some advising him to keep the curfew in place because "nothing good happens after midnight," he said, and others saying he should give them more responsibility.
"For a good period of time, [the curfew] has worked," he said. "There’s always the argument, don’t change something that’s not broken, and I happened to believe it was broken and I made the changes," he said.
"In that six months, I will not sleep easily on the weekends until I get up in the morning and look at the blotter reports and see, ‘OK, are my troops doing as I expect them to do out there, or not?’ "
Former USFK Gen. B.B. Bell said in January that he would ease the curfew for higher-ranking servicemembers within two months. He delayed announcing a decision until late May, when he said he had decided to keep the curfew because troops in South Korea have a "wartime mission" and must always be ready to fight.
Sharp said Bell, who retired in June, told him he had seriously considered changing the curfew, and predicted it and driving restrictions would be the most contentious issues he would face.
"He decided it wasn’t right for him to make the decision and force me to live with it," he said.
Sharp said he has not yet considered changing the 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. ban on servicemembers going to Hongdae, a popular bar and restaurant area near several South Korean universities.
Bell enacted the ban after a U.S. soldier brutally raped a 67-year-old woman in the neighborhood last year.
A stricter version of the current curfew went into place for USFK troops a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when most U.S. bases worldwide set curfews.
Many have since lifted their curfews, but U.S. commanders in South Korea have never fully rescinded a curfew, citing force-protection concerns.