Alliance relations often hinge on the personal: events that critics—and broader publics—see as emblematic of the larger relationship. The most tragic example from recent history came in 2002, when two high school girls were run over by a US armored vehicle (a thorough re-telling from an American military perspective can be found at ROK Drop). More recently, we reviewed some of the issues surrounding the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in the context of a rape charge brought against a US soldier (here and here).
But who would have guessed that a parking incident near Osan Air Base would become the latest PR challenge for the alliance? The bad moment came when three South Korean civilians were handcuffed by US MPs after one was asked to move a vehicle out of a no-parking zone. As anyone who has spent time in Korea knows, norms about double-parking are simply different; more like New York. An early account claimed that the truck was parked in a front of a shop to unload, but the shop owner told the MPs that the van would be moved after finishing his meal. Escalation ensued as the shop owner protested, others were drawn into the fray, and the MPs and the Korean civilians ultimately tussled. In the end, half a dozen MPs were involved in handcuffing three Koreans and taking them to the main gate of the base, about 500 feet away from the scene. The civilians were ultimately released, but not before the whole incident had gone viral on the internet and in the Korean media.
Whether under public pressure or from genuine dismay, the South Korean foreign ministry made a formal complaint and summoned the USFK Deputy Commander. General James Thurman, USFK Commander and his deputy Lieutenant General Jan-Marc Jouas immediately released a public apology.
Nonetheless, controversy still exists with regards to the MP’s claim that their actions were legal. South Korean critics made reference to Article 22, paragraph 10(a) and 10(b) of the SOFA which read as follows:
“10. (a) Regularly constituted military units or formations of the United States armed forces shall have the right to police any facilities or areas which they use under Article II of this Agreement. The military police of such forces may take all appropriate measures to ensure the maintenance of order and security within such facilities and areas.
(b) Outside these facilities and areas, such military police shall be employed only subject to arrangements with the authorities of the Republic of Korea and in liaison with those authorities, and insofar as such employment is necessary to maintain discipline and order among the members of the United States armed forces, or ensure their security.”
Clearly, there are still issues to be resolved about off-base patrols by US MPs as well as coordination with South Korean authorities. According to Yonhap, the SOFA Joint Committee, made up of U.S. and South Korean officials, will meet to discuss the issue. But the broader point, sadly, is that support for the alliance is always fragile and subject to the play of emotions as well as reason; welcome to the human race.
We close with a story about one of our colleagues at UCSD, a physicist, who figured out how to beat a parking ticket using a little science; we will put him in touch with our aggrieved Korean friends next time out.