Korea: U.S. soldier accused of raping teen released without arrest

The Hankyoreh newspaper reports:

A female student in her teens was allegedly sexually assaulted by a drunk U.S. soldier in the middle of the night at her residence in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province. The same town was the site of a physical assault and attempted sexual assault on an old couple in February, also by a U.S. soldier.

The incident is expected to have a major impact, as it was reported that although the soldier responsible for the latest assault made a complete confession to police, he returned to the base without being placed under arrest due to the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

Blaming the inequality of the SOFA’s terms for the inability to arrest a U.S. soldier who committed a serious crime, civic organizations and political parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and minor opposition Democratic Labor Party (DLP), urged the swift establishment of measures to prevent additional crimes by U.S. forces, including a full amendment of the SOFA and enactment of legislation to prohibit nighttime travel by U.S. forces.

The Dongducheon Police Station reported Thursday that “K,” a 21-year-old private with the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, was questioned on charges of entering a Dongducheon gositel apartment while intoxicated at around 4 a.m. on Sept. 24 and threatening and repeatedly sexually assaulting 18-year-old “G,” who had been watching television at the time. Following the questioning, the private was handed over to U.S. military police, the police station reported.

The case reveals the legal inequality of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and South Korea, a common situation for many foreign base agreements with the U.S.:

Unable even to request an arrest warrant for K because of the SOFA, police forwarded the case to prosecutors Wednesday. According to the police manual for SOFA cases, they are empowered only to incarcerate and investigate soldiers who are caught in the act perpetrating heinous crimes such as rape, without transferring the suspect to U.S. military authorities.

Dongducheon Police State investigation chief Hwang Ui-min explained the reason for K’s release without arrest, saying, said, “For U.S. forces crimes, the SOFA permits us to have detentions and investigations in cases where [the suspect] is caught in the act or before he has returned to base, but once he has returned to base we have to submit a separate transfer request to the U.S. military.”

U.S. military and state department officials immediately issued statements to express regret and cooperation.   This is an indication of how volatile this issue could become in Korea:

The U.S. State Department expressed its profound regrets Wednesday (local time) and said it would cooperate with the South Korean government for a thorough investigation. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell called South Korean Ambassador to the United States Han Duck-soo on Thursday to express their dismay over the incident, telling Han that the U.S. government would cooperate closely with the South Korean government to ensure a thorough investigation of the incident, the South Korean Embassy in Washington reported.

It is unusual for senior U.S. State Department authorities to express their regrets so quickly, less than one day after the United States Forces Korea (USFK) sexual assault case came to light. Observers attributed this to the U.S. having learned the lesson that incidents involving the U.S. and USFK in particular, such as the 2002 death of two female middle school students from being crushed by a U.S. armored vehicle, could lead to an uncontrollable situation of spreading anti-American sentiment.

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