Thor's Korea Diary

Crime and Punishment

@1 December 2002

The Kookje Daily News (Busan) asked me to write a short opinion piece for translation on the tragic killing of two young Korean girls by an American military vehicle. This is the English version. Writing on this topic was delicate, for it has aroused strong emotions on both sides. I hope the following account maintains some balance..[postscript 20 December 2002 : although Kookje commissioned this piece, I have been unable to find any evidence that they ran the story (they have published earlier stories I wrote). Ho hum .. ]

On June 13, 2001 two 13 year old Korean girls, Shim Mi-sun and Shin Hyo-sun, were crushed to death by an American military vehicle. On September 11, 2000 3030 Americans were killed by an Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon. What do these two tragedies have in common? In some ways, quite a lot.

Both tragedies caused enormous national grief. Both caused an upsurge of anger against foreigners. Both Americans and South Koreans were sure that their tragedy was special, and outraged that others might simply see these events as another item in the long list of the world's troubles.

My purpose is to write a little about the terrible killing of those two Korean girls. As an Australian, perhaps my viewpoint is somewhat independent.

The June 13 accident has many layers, like an onion. At the innermost layer, two girls were killed by a vehicle. Sadly, such occurrences are not unusual. Three hundred and fifty school children were killed by vehicles in South Korea last year, two hundred of them in school safety zones. This, surely, is a national disgrace.

At the next layer of the onion, an American military vehicle caused this particular accident. It was a strange vehicle, which required an observer to tell the driver where to steer. An American military court has acquitted both the driver and the observer of negligence. Koreans are furious that they were not tried by a Korean court.

Thus we have the questions of who was responsible, and who should decide responsibility? From newspaper reports, we cannot say whether the driver and/or the observer were negligent. We can say that their commanding officer was guilty for allowing the vehicle on the road. We understand that such vehicles have now been banned from public roads, and that the officer has been reprimanded (which will probably destroy his military career). We do not know his name.

Who should decide responsibility for accidents like this? The American military insist that they must always prosecute their own staff. This is certain to look unfair to host countries. Following similar logic, the present American government has refused to subject its citizens to the International Court of Justice. There is deep anger about this, even amongst America's closest allies. On the other hand, the South Korean government has just negotiated a Status of Forces agreement with the Kirghizstan government which is identical to the American S.O.F. agreement in South Korea. The Koreans too refuse to submit their military staff to local justice.

The last layer of the onion is the American military presence in South Korea. An outside observer like me has to conclude that this is what really drives the street protests, not the death of those poor little girls. Should the Americans be in South Korea? Ah, here is another very big onion which we can't properly peel here. Many Americans in South Korea care greatly about the country, and do all they can to help. My own view (for what it is worth) is that the American government itself doesn't give a damn about South Korea, except for selfish reasons, and that most Americans could not find Korea on a map. In some ways, that might be very good news for Korea. For centuries, Chinese, Japanese, Mongols and Jurchens knew far too much about Korea, and sometimes made life hell. That cruel reality has not changed. Maybe a remote, ignorant ally like America is the best that Korea can ever hope for. They just have to keep those big, stupid vehicles off the roads.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Crime and Punishment"... copyrighted to Thor May 2002; all rights reserved
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