Prelude to Tragedy
On the morning of June 13th, 2002 it was just another hard day of training for the soldiers of Bravo Company, 44th Engineer Battalion, who were part of the US military’s premier combat unit in Korea, the Second Infantry Division (2ID). The 2ID is the lone US combat division stationed on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and is responsible for maintaining a credible combat deterrent to any possible North Korean aggression. A major part of maintaining a credible combat deterrent is to make sure soldiers are properly trained in both individual and collective soldier skills and that they have confidence in the equipment they use. In order to develop these skills and confidence much of a soldiers’ time while stationed in Korea is comprised of field training exercises that can last for weeks at a time.
The soldiers of Bravo Company were participating in one of the routinely scheduled brigade level exercise that are conducted to evaluate a unit’s combat readiness that is so critical to ensuring a credible combat deterrent is being kept by the Second Infantry Division. Bravo Company had been in the field for two weeks conducting continuous operations and that morning the engineers were under orders to travel to the Twin Bridges Training Area (TBTA) to link up with a mechanized infantry unit in order to participate in an expected training event there. Twin Bridges is one of the most heavily used training areas in the Second Infantry Division and most soldiers in the division are quite familiar with it. The engineers that morning prepared their equipment and began their move down Highway 56 to the training area.
Google Earth image of convoy route to Twin Bridges from accident site.
Much like the soldiers of Bravo Company, Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, both 13 year-old middle school students, were also beginning a typical day. They had both agreed to meet up and walk to a nearby restaurant in order to attend a friend’s birthday party being held there. As the girls were walking down the road and the engineers moved west down Highway 56, none of them had any idea that the events of this day would become one of the defining moments of the US-ROK alliance that is still causing ripple effects to this day[i].
Highway 56, like most of the highways in the 2ID area of operations north of Seoul, is a very narrow road with many blind corners and no shoulders. This highway is heavily used by both the American and Korean militaries to access training areas located adjacent to the highway. Bravo Company and other units had been travelling down the road all week due to the major training exercise. The engineers’ were organized themselves in a convoy with the company commander CPT Mason in a HMMWV (High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle) leading the convoy, followed by a M113 tracked vehicle and then the five largest vehicles in the convoy, M60A1 AVLB (Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge) who were followed by another HMMWV bringing up the rear of the convoy.
The AVLB driver is on the left side of the vehicle. Notice the blind spot caused by the bridge laying aparatus.
All was fine until about 20 minutes into the movement when the convoy reached a particularly narrow portion of the highway that featured a turn that sloped up a hill. As the Bravo Company convoy travelled up the hill another convoy of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles was moving towards the Bravo Company convoy from the other direction. The engineers would find out later that this convoy of Bradleys were in fact the very ones they were travelling to meet up with. The appearance of this convoy would ultimately lead to a perfect storm of events that would that end with deadly consequences.
The lead HMMWV with CPT Mason in it saw the Bradleys coming down the opposite lane of the highway as well as seeing two young Korean girls walking along the white line on the shoulder of the road. The actions of CPT Mason at this critical moment would come under much scrutiny later on. The commander of the M113, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Murray, was directly behind Mason’s HMMWV and he saw the on coming convoy and the two girls as well. He immediately turned around and signalled to the AVLB behind him with his arms crossed to warn the vehicle commander of the impending danger.
Picture of the accident site. Notice how the road has no shoulder for pedestrians.
The driver of the AVLB Sergeant (SGT) Mark Walker saw the Bradleys coming down the left side of the road, but could not see the two girls walking on the right side of the road due to the shape and design of the AVLB that blocked the driver’s vision to his right. The commander of the AVLB, SGT Fernando Nino who was seated above Walker was overall responsible for directing the movement of the vehicle. He did see someone with a red shirt walking along the side of the road and tried to radio to SGT Walker to stop the vehicle. Due to the noise made by a large tracked vehicle like an AVLB, the vehicle’s driver and commander can only communicate through radio head-sets that are wired to each other in the vehicle. When SGT Nino tried to communicate his warning to Walker, there was a failure with the internal radio and Walker could not hear Nino’s warning because of cross talk on the radio[ii].
Example communications microphone system used by US military.
The AVLB has a width of 3.67 meters and the right lane of the highway they were traveling on was 3.7 meters wide. Walker moved the AVLB slightly to the right in order to give his AVLB more room between him and the on coming convoy of Bradleys. This simple reaction would become something that both men in the AVLB and everybody involved in the convoy that day would regret for the rest of their lives.
Reacting to Tragedy
SSG Murray sitting on top of the M113 in front of the AVLB was unfortunate enough to have a perfect view of the tragedy that had unfolded. As Walker maneuvered the AVLB to the right hand shoulder of the road he had inadvertently struck and ran over Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun who had very nearly made it to the restaurant to attend their friend’s birthday party when tragedy struck. Murray told his driver Specialist (SPC) Joshua Ray to immediately radio CPT Mason in the lead HMMWV. CPT Mason did not respond and SPC Ray increased the speed of the M113 in order to stop the lead HMMWV and report what happened to CPT Mason.
CPT Mason’s HMMWV and SSG Murray’s M113 pulled over in the parking lot of a near by restaurant. A tearful Murray told Mason what he had saw happen. Ray wanted to rush to the scene with a first aid kit, but Murray told him it was no use, he knew nothing could be done to aid the two girls.
School pictures of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun.
As ambulances and local police arrived on the scene the busy highway became snarled with traffic and the accompanying sounds of angry motorists thinking that the road was blocked by yet another broken down army vehicle, which is not a uncommon sight in the 2ID area, instead of being the scene of a great tragedy that it was.
As the scene continued to grow a woman from the restaurant came out to see what the commotion was all about. When she found out what was happening she was shocked because her daughter had been waiting for two of her friends to come to her birthday party at the restaurant. She went back into the restaurant and the father of one of the girls then rushed out to the scene of the accident. He like everyone else at the scene was devastated by what had happened. There was no Americans or Koreans that day, just people saddened and at a loss of words at the tragedy that unfolded. It is too bad that such a unity in grief and sorrow would not last.
The Initial US Military Response
The day after the tragedy the commander of the Eighth United States Army at the time General Daniel Zanini, which is the higher headquarters for the Second Infantry Division, immediately apologized the day of the incident and vowed to conduct a thorough investigation in conjunction with Korean authorities of what happened[iii]. In the coming days the families of the two victims would be visited by the commander of the 2ID, Major General Russel Honore.
Former 2ID commander General Honore
General Honore would a few years later become more famously known for being the tough, talking General that commanded the military relief operation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Long before his hurricane fame, General Honore was dealing with a tragedy in Korea that may not have done the physical destruction of a Hurricane Katrina, but threatened to cause far more political destruction than even the fall out after the botched hurricane response.
General Honore apologized, accepted full responsibility for the accident, and offered the families an initial solation payment of one million won (about US $1,000) which is a normal Korean custom in response to such an accident. General Honore also vowed that an agreement would be reached according to Korean law to determine the overall sum of compensation payment to be given to the family since clearly 2ID was at fault for the accident.
2ID soldiers attend candle light vigil in memory of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun.
Other efforts organized by 2ID in the wake of the accident, was a candle light vigil by the soldiers to express the grief of the division over the accident that was also used as a charity event to raise money for the victim’s families. The soldiers raised $22,000 from this effort that went to the families. Future fundraising drives would total another $30,000 that would be used to build a memorial in memory of the lives of the two girls[iv]. To this day I have never met a Korean yet that knows about these fundraising efforts immediately after the accident by the soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Korean NGO’s Mobilize
For years Korean non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have been chipping away at the fabric of the US-ROK alliance by finding issues to demagogue and then using effective media coverage to influence public perceptions about USFK. Many of the leaders of these groups were from the pro-Democracy movement of the 1980’s and many of them have spent time in South Korean jails at various times. These leaders blamed the US for the country’s tacit support of various military dictators that ruled the country in the past. It was illegal in South Korea to openly protest against the United States thus these pro-Democracy activists used the concept of creating NGO’s in order to mask their true anti-US intentions. A perfect example of this is a group named Green Korea, which was formed to advocate for environmental protection in Korea. However, the group very rarely advocates for any environmental causes outside of protesting US military camps for alleged environmental abuses.
Koreans protest outside US military base. Involving children is a common protest tactic.
These groups had been looking for a cause that they could rally the majority of the Korean general public around for years. The causes they had advocated before were effective to a degree but none of them truly mobilized the general public against USFK. This all changed on June 13, 2002. These anti-US groups could not have asked for a better issue to demagogue than the accident on Highway 56. Just days after the accident the anti-US groups were protesting outside of US military installations and demanding that the soldiers involved in the accident be tried in Korean courts.
On June 27, 2002 the anti-US activist groups waged a medium size protest of an estimated 200 people outside the Second Infantry Division headquarters at Camp Red Cloud in the city of Uijongbu. The protesters launched a well-planned assault on the camp in the hopes of creating effective propaganda images of US soldiers beating Korean civilians.
The protest organizers had set up a tent along the camp’s fence line that was supposed to serve as a place for people to sign a petition. However, the tent’s real purpose was to serve as cover for a group of activists who were at the back of the tent cutting a hole in the fence line. Once the hole was cut a pre-selected group of activists flooded through the hole and into Camp Red Cloud. The students marched through the main street of the camp chanting anti-US slogans and holding banners. They marched to the front gate where they confronted the US force protection guards there manning the gate. As the guards confronted the protesters to remove them from the camp the protesters chained themselves together to make the mass of protesters harder to move.
Additionally many of the protesters that had infiltrated into the camp were women. The anti-US group organizers had hoped to capture film of US soldiers striking over reacting and striking the protesters to remove them from the camp. The groups had cameramen positioned on rooftops of high apartments overlooking the camp and with bird’s eye views of the front gate. If any of these cameramen could get footage of a US soldier striking one of these protesters, preferably a female they would have won a massive propaganda victory for their efforts.
Korean protesters through objects over the CRC fence in June 2002.
To further provoke the Camp Red Cloud guards a second group of protesters infiltrated along the heavily forested western fence line of the camp and cut another hole to enter the camp through. Now the camp’s guards faced infiltrators on two fronts. US soldiers rushed to apprehend the protesters and seal the hole in the fence line. It is at this hole that the protest turned particularly violent.
The US soldiers who responded to the hole in the western fence line used shields and baton to stop the flow of protesters into the camp. As they sealed the hole with their shields the protesters continued to try and push themselves through the shields. As they did this, another group of protesters threw rocks and chunks of concrete over the fence at the US soldiers in order to get them to raise their shields to protect themselves thus exposing their bodies to attack from the mob trying to get through the fence. Due to this violent stand off on the western fence line, nine US soldiers had to be hospitalized for serious injuries after the protest.
With the help of the Korean National Police the US force protection personnel were able to remove all the protesters from the camp without the anti-US groups winning a large propaganda victory. However, this didn’t stop the Korean media from sympathizing and sensationalizing what happened at Camp Red Cloud that day.
The Korea Times newspaper on June 27th reported:
“Two reporters affiliated with an Internet news firm have been under arrest since Wednesday evening on charges of trespassing on territory occupied by US military facilities, local police in Uijongbu said yesterday. Police officers are also examining the claims by some witnesses that the two reporters were beaten with clubs and dragged in chains as they were being taken into US military police custody.”
The “reporters” in question are in fact simply administrators of anti-US websites who helped cut down the fences and infiltrated into the camp. Notice how the Korea Times makes no mention that the protesters in fact chained themselves and instead leaves the reader to believe the US military chained and beat the people including these “reporters” who infiltrated into the camp. Unsurprisingly absent from the Korean media reporting of the Camp Red Cloud protest was that nine US soldiers had to be treated in a hospital due to injuries sustained from the anti-US protesters throwing concrete blocks at them.
US soldier injured by Korean protesters is evacuated.
The absurdity of these claims reached a crescendo when on July 8th the Korean Human Right’s Commission demanded to interrogate the US military policemen who arrested the protesters for breaking into the camp. When USFK would not turn over the military policemen the Human Rights Commission fined USFK.
However, overall these groups at the time were receiving very little media and public attention in the days after the accident because Korea was co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with Japan. The World Cup had the full attention of the Korean media and public due to the fact that the Korean team was in the midst of a stunning winning streak that ended in the World Cup semi-finals. The Korean soccer team’s amazing performance had brought nationalism in the country to an all time high that may never be surpassed. The anti-US groups may have failed to draw attention to their cause in June, but by July these groups were well prepared to capitalize on this rise in nationalism that would ultimately change the course of US-ROK relations forever.
Influence of the New Internet Media
In July the anti-US groups began to launch larger and more violent protests against USFK. The most heated protests were outside the two main camps of the Second Infantry Division, the largest installation, Camp Casey in Dongducheon and the division headquarters on Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu.
In July, the anti-US groups began to launch an effective propaganda campaign on college campuses across the nation in order to swell their ranks during planned protests that month. They were able to do this through not only the common means of word of mouth and flyers, but through the use of internet message boards and text messaging as well. Korea is considered the world’s “most wired” country and internet cafes filled with youths spending hours at a time on the internet can be found in even the smallest towns. Nearly every South Korean walks around with cell phone, even children as young as seven years old can be seen walking and talking on a cell phone. Harnessing modern technology to spread the NGOs’ anti-US message would be easy the part, but creating a message that would mobilize the masses would prove to be the hard part.
Wanted posters distributed for capture of “US killers” involved in the accident.
Simply telling the truth about what happened on that road side that fateful June morning along Highway 56 would not be enough to cause the general public to join the anti-US groups’ cause to expel USFK from Korea. Instead of the truth to mobilize the masses, the NGOs had to create a perception, and the perception they chose to create was one of a great injustice against the Korean people that everyone could identify with. The NGOs launched a propaganda campaign centered around creating an image of evil, non-apologetic American GI’s mercilessly running over two angelic school girls on their way to a birthday party and getting away with it. This image is so powerful because Koreans love their children just like any culture, but it was also equating the US military with the Japanese Imperial Army that colonized the Korean peninsula prior to the country’s liberation after World War II. Due to this sometime extremely brutal colonial period, many Koreans today still hold a very bitter grudge against the Japanese. The fact that the Eighth United States Army headquarters is based out of Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, which used to be the headquarters of the old Imperial Japanese military only helped to feed this perception. It would be an easy leap of logic for someone in Korea to conclude that the Japanese had disrespected and brutalized Korea than and the US military is doing it now.
Additionally Korea is a homogeneous society that instinctively groups together against any slight made against the country by foreigners. A perfect example of this is when American late night comedian Jay Leno made a joke about how Koreans like to eat dogs. This simple joke was taken by many in Korea to be a racist attack against the nation by America and the fall out from this joke lasted for weeks with demands for apologies from the comedian[v]. The NGOs knew the attitudes of the general Korean public very well and they had a strategy to take advantage of the attitudes of their Korean audience. They had already decided on a perception they wanted to create about the accident and how they were going to spread it; the only thing they needed to do was figure out how to present this message so it seemed plausible to the general public.
The NGOs decided by spreading simple disinformation through the Internet about what happened would be the most plausible way to implement their strategy. Stories on internet message boards spread about how the American soldiers had intentionally ran over the two girls[vi]. The most famous story that made its way around all the Korean internet message boards was how the US soldiers in the convoy that day were laughing at the fact that they had ran over the two girls. The laughing so angered KATUSA (Korean Augmentee to the US Army) soldiers serving with the unit that they started a fight with the laughing soldiers. This story is not supported by any of the witnesses that were at the scene that day and additionally no one can produce the KATUSA soldiers that were allegedly involved in the fight. Despite the lack of evidence to support the claim that KATUSA soldiers fought with laughing GIs that day, it is still a common belief among many Koreans that this story is in fact true[vii].
As the misinformation spread, almost over night hundreds of websites dedicated to Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were set up by Koreans who felt legitimate grief over what happened and demanded justice against the evil, unapologetic GIs who they felt had murdered these two girls.
Response of Major Korean Media Outlets
The initial response of the major Korean news outlets after the accident, had at first been marginal with newspapers publishing short articles about what happened and was largely ignored by the major television broadcasters[viii]. However, by July the major media could join the anti-US feeding frenzy that was already raging on-line because the thousands of foreign visitors and media representatives to Korea who had attended the World Cup had already departed. With the world’s attention away from Korea the major media outlets were poised to take advantage of this tragedy just like the on-line media had in the weeks right after the accident.
One of the common themes in the media was that even though the US military apologized for the accident, the apology was not “sincere”[ix]. After the accident every commanding US general in USFK issued an apology after the accident happened, the US Ambassador apologized[x], an initial solation payment was made to the family, a candle light vigil by US soldiers was held, and a fundraising drive was initiated that raised $22,000 for the girl’s families and another $30,000 for a memorial in their honor. Despite all this, the Korean media declares the US military’s response insincere. Incredibly even President Bush would later go on and apologize for the accident[xi].
Before long the misinformation being put out was not limited to internet message boards and print newspapers, but was on the average Korean’s television screen as well. The networks repeated much of what was already available on-line and is wasn’t too long before the networks produced sensational misinformation of their own making. The most infamous example of misinformation was when the major news network MBC aired footage of someone claiming to be a former Korean Army tank driver who was able to “prove” in an interview that the American soldiers in the AVLB intentionally ran over the girls and then ground guided the vehicle back over the bodies again to make sure they were dead. This interview entered into the common mythology of what happened that even to this day, much like the KATUSA story, many Koreans believe this story to be true.
The print media as well repeated much of what was on-line, but also focused repeatedly on the “one-sided” SOFA Agreement[xii]. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and South Korea lays out the legal framework of how US soldiers handled when crimes are committed in South Korea. Under the SOFA American military personnel in Korea can be charged, tried, and imprisoned under Korean law for crimes committed off duty. For crimes committed on duty these crimes would be handled by US military authorities. Since the accident on Highway 56 happened while SGT Walker and SGT Nino were on duty they do not fall under Korean law.
The Korean newspapers focused their disinformation on claiming repeatedly that no US soldiers have ever been tried in Korean courts because of the “unfair SOFA Agreement”. The newspapers continued to hype how US soldiers were allowed to commit all these crimes against Koreans and then fly back home due to the big, bad SOFA. The facts of the matter is that US soldiers that have committed crimes while off duty have in fact been tried in Korean courts and imprisoned in Korean jails since the 1960s, yet none of this information ever made it into the Korean media. To this day there are people in Korea who think that US soldiers are tried presently in Korean courts due only to the fall out from the 2002 armoured vehicle accident, when in fact they have been tried in Korean courts for decades.
Those newspapers that were at least intellectually honest enough to distinguish between crimes committed on duty and off, tried to use a 1957 decision by the United States military to allow the prosecution of a soldier who had shot and killed a Japanese woman while on duty in Japanese courts. However, what the media would not point out is that the soldier intentionally murdered the Japanese female and was rightfully handed over to the Japanese authorities for prosecution compared to the two USFK soldiers who were involved in a traffic accident.
Such sensationalism by the Korean media over this accident really should not have been unexpected. Korean journalists do not report the news in the sense that people in West expect. Citizens from western countries expect their news outlets to serve as a check and balance on the government and big business and provide factually based news. In Korea the media often reports what the government and big business want reported as well as what British journalist Michael Breen calls, “speculation, trial balloons, rumour, and deliberate distortions”[xiii] in the name of ratings.
Signs went up around Korea banning Americans from entering into restaurants and businesses.
The sensationalism by the Korean media of the armoured vehicle accident was made quite clear when on June 29, 2002 North Korean patrol boats deliberately ambushed a South Korean Naval vessel patrolling the maritime border between the two countries. Six South Korean sailors died in the attack and the South Korean government, NGOs, and media did everything possible to minimize the deliberate murder of six South Korean sailors while continuing to sensationalize the accidental death of the two school girls[xiv]. The hypocrisy is quite stunning but when it comes to the Korean media they could care less about hypocrisy and more about ratings and sensationalism of the Highway 56 traffic accident was bringing in those ratings. There would be plenty more sensationalism to come.
The slander and accusations against USFK continued to fly both on the web and through the television networks. The tragic accident had taken on a life of its own as the major media outlets competed with the new start up internet media sites in their rush to condemn these soldiers for murder. The propaganda against USFK would become so effective that US soldiers were being assaulted and spat upon on the streets of Seoul with waiting Korean news cameramen recording it all for the nation to see[xv]. Signs went up all around Seoul refusing service to Americans in restaurants, hotels, and businesses. Massive rallies were held where demonstrators burned and tore American flags.
US soldiers kidnapped, beaten, and forced to make false statements denouncing the US government on Korean TV.
Probably the most blatant example of anti-US hate was when three US soldiers on a Seoul subway were assaulted by Korean protesters travelling to a rally on university campus. The protesters beat the soldiers and then abducted them from the subway car and began dragging them towards the anti-US demonstration. Korean policemen were able to free two of the soldiers but the third soldier was dragged into the demonstration held at the university’s sports stadium. He was threatened and forced to make coerce statements against the US by the demonstrators and make forced apologies. Despite everything that happened to them, the soldiers were charged with assault by the Korean police[xvi].
It wouldn’t be long before such irrational behaviour and actions would influence the South Korean political climate as well.
Politicizing the Tragedy
In the summer of 2002, Korea was in the middle of a heated presidential election that year. With the NGOs and the major media taking advantage of the accident it was only natural that the politicians running for president would do so as well. Instead of responsible leadership from the Korean government mediating between the media, the public, and USFK to stop the exploitation of this tragedy; the Korean politicians in fact encouraged it and made it even worse. None of the politicians wanted to be accused by their opponents of being a lap dog of the US, so it quickly became a political race to see who could bash the US more.
Former Korean President Roh Moo-hyun
A little known human rights lawyer from the Cholla province of Korea, Roh Moo-hyun began to attract popular attention with his populist anti-American rants and slogans that began to strike a cord with the general Korean people. Roh who had little political experience and did not even graduate from college became a serious contender for the highest office in the country simply because he ran on a platform of being more anti-American than all the other contenders.
Example of narrow roads that remain near military training areas today.
The Korean politicians had more than just political agendas to advance with their demagoguery of the 2002 armored vehicle accident. The politicians also had to deflect blame as well. Much of the infrastructure in the northern Kyongi Province where 2ID is located had not kept up with South Korea’s rapid economic progress. Massive highways, bridges, and tunnels can be found all over South Korea to the south of Seoul however, few of these infrastructure improvements can be found in the 2ID area. Most of the roads in the 2ID are extremely small, not well maintained, and heavily used by both the American and Korean militaries as well as many civilian vehicles and pedestrians. Despite the heavy use of these roads very few of them even have a shoulder for a broken down vehicle to park on or even a sidewalk for civilians to walk on. Accidents involving the US military as well as the Korean military are not uncommon due to the conditions and do lead to fatalities[xvii].
The Court Martial
Probably the most significant and biggest mistake made in the handling of the 2002 armoured vehicle accident was that the USFK commanding General Leon LaPorte decided to court martial both SGT Nino and SGT Walker. Since the accident happened while the two sergeants were on duty they were not subject to Korean law due to the US-ROK Status of Forces Agreement, and thus the investigation of the accident along with any potential charges against them would be handled by the US military. All though the Korean authorities had no jurisdiction over the case, USFK had the Korean police investigate the scene with them and kept the Korean authorities and media fully briefed on what was going on. Five months after the accident the Korean National Police concurred with USFK investigators that the deaths of the two girls was an accident[xviii].
Out of the 30 nations that compose the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Korea ranked as the most dangerous place to drive[xix]. The data gathered from 2003 just one year after the armoured vehicle accident showed that Korea had 137 car accidents per 10,000 vehicles on the road. Additionally for every 100,000 people involved in a traffic accident, 15 people died. Each statistic topped the OECD’s rankings. Probably the most dubious statistic is that Korea ranked first in the OECD in traffic related child deaths. 82 children died every day in Korea with 70 percent of those accident involving children walking alongside a road[xx].
Perfect example of how a narrow road is made even more dangerous due to civilian activity.
As the statistics show, a tragic accident like what happened in June 2002 is not uncommon in Korea and the reasons for these accidents happening has nothing to do with the US military and the Korean police who helped investigate the tragedy realized this. That is why the police concluded with the USFK investigators that this was a tragic accident like many other tragic accidents involving children in Korea; the only difference was that this one involved the US military.
The NGO’s involved in the protests against USFK after the accident could care less about promoting traffic safety in Korea to prevent accidents like what happened in June 2002 from happening anywhere else in Korea. All these groups were interested in was promoting their anti-US agendas. These people have little concern about the welfare of Korean children killed every year on Korean roads and if Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were killed by a Korean vehicle these groups would be shedding no tears and could care less.
After the results of the initial investigation were released these anti-US groups immediately started declaring it was a cover up. The claims of a cover up in Korea is very easy for the general public to believe because for decades the ruling Korean dictators had often covered up many crimes and scandals caused by the government. Even though democracy has come to Korea the old beliefs of government cover ups, especially involving USFK are easy to believe.
Korean NGOs demanded that USFK hand over the two soldiers to be tried in Korean courts despite their SOFA status. This demand was especially hypocritical considering that due to Article 2 of the Korean Military Court Act, the Korean military has jurisdiction over all crimes committed by their servicemembers whether they were off duty or not[xxi]. The fact that ROK military personnel never stand trial in Korean courts is an inconvenient fact that many Koreans would rather not acknowledge. A USFK servicemember on the other hand is subject to Korean civilian court for any crime committed while off duty. With the differences in jurisdiction between the Korean and American militaries, it makes you wonder that if the Korean civilian judicial system is not good enough for the Korean military than why should it be good enough to try American soldiers in? This is an inconvenient fact that is left unaddressed by the anti-US groups and their media allies. The hypocrisy is stunning, but like I said before hypocrisy is of little significance in Korea.
SGT Nino and Walker during court martial.
Probably the most stunning hypocrisy of the SOFA criticism is the fact that the Korean military has status of forces agreements with every nation that is host to deployed South Korean military personnel. In these SOFAs, the ROK Army has primary jurisdiction of crimes committed by their soldiers both on and off duty. A couple of recent examples of when the ROK military’s SOFA was activated were both in Iraq and involved the deployment of the ROK Army’s Zaytun Division outside the Kurdish capitol city of Irbil. In the first case a South Korean soldier was playing with his rifle when an accidental discharge killed a nearby Kurdish soldier[xxii].
The SOFA was activated and the Korean soldier was handled by a ROK military court martial. In 2006 a Korean soldier driving a military truck was involved in a traffic accident where he caused the death of a 53 year old Kurdish politician. Once again the South Korean military activated their SOFA. This is what Colonel Ha Du-cheol told reporters after the accident, “The traffic accident occurred in the line of duty, so we are seeking ways to compensate the victim’s family.”[xxiii] Sound familiar? It should because it is the same thing the US military did after the 2002 armoured vehicle accident, which these groups were demanding SOFA revisions for. However, when a nearly identical situation happens with a Korean soldier it receives a small passage in the newspaper and no righteous indignation from anyone complaining about an unequal SOFA between Korea and Kurdistan.
The Korean military has never allowed one of their soldiers to be tried in a foreign host nation’s civilian courts, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that Korean soldiers do not even stand trial in civilian courts in their own country. Despite all of these inconvenient facts the anti-US groups and their media allies have the nerve to condemn USFK for an unfair status of forces agreement.
Despite the sheer hypocrisy of the demands, USFK Commander General LaPorte in an attempt to placate these groups and appease Korean public sentiment, ordered the two US soldiers court martialled for negligent homicide in the hope that if all the facts were laid out during the trial; everyone would see that USFK was not conducting a cover up. General LaPorte was new to the job and probably did not understand Korean customs very well. In Korea when a traffic accident happens that involves a fatality a solation payment is made to the family of the deceased. In accordance with Korean customs and in coordination with the Korean Justice Ministry, before the court martial was announced, USFK issued a compensation payment of $147,820 American dollars to each of the victim’s families[xxiv]. In a typical traffic accident in Korea the compensation payment and apologies would have been enough to settle the dispute.
When General LaPorte made the decision to court martial the two sergeants, it only aggravated the situation because court trials in Korea are not perceived like trials in the US are. Korea is not a “rule of law” country and is instead a “rule by law” country[xxv]. So when someone goes on trial in Korea the expectation is that the person is guilty to begin with; the trial is just a determination of how guilty the person really is. This sentiment is best expressed in a Chosun Ilbo editorial that declared: “Although we had not expected much, we had hoped that the US martial court might reach a verdict that showed a little understanding of Korean sentiment. That hope turned out to be misplaced.”[xxvi] As shown by this article what mattered most to the general Korean population was “Korean sentiment” that the soldiers were guilty, not any concerns of an open and fair trial to determine the facts of what happened that day.
50,000 Korean protesters tear up American flags before 2002 Korean presidential election.
By putting the two sergeants on trial General LaPorte had already declared to the general Korean public that the two sergeants were guilty. When the two sergeants were acquitted of all charges it played right into the anti-US group’s claims of a cover up. The acquittals just led to more protests, bad publicity, political demagoguery, and violence against American military personnel stationed in Korea.
Following the court martial, both SGT Walker and SGT Nino were flown back to the United States and both eventually left the Army[xxvii]. Four leaders within the engineering unit involved in the accident were disciplined by the US military. The commander CPT Mason, the first sergeant, platoon sergeant, and platoon leader all received written letters of reprimand from General Honore for not following traffic safety procedures, which effectively ended their careers[xxviii].
In a letter to the editor of the Stars & Stripes SPC Joshua Ray who was the driver of the AVLB in front of the one involved in accident stated that their commander CPT Mason has ignored safety measures by driving the large vehicle on the road where the accident happened as well as not giving soldiers in the unit enough sleep before departing on the convoy[xxix]. The points Ray brings up in the article are not unique to this engineer unit. During this timeframe 2nd Infantry Division trained heavily in the field and conducted “tactical movements” on civilian roads from one training area to the next. As Ray brings up in his article such “tactical movements” in civilian areas would never happen in the United States.
However, in the United States, military units usually do not have to travel through civilian areas to get to a training area because the training areas are often located adjacent to the military base. In Korea long convoys of both wheeled and tracked vehicles have to be conducted on civilian roads to get to training areas, with many of these roads being quite narrow and passing through small towns[xxx]. In the United States a tracked vehicle would never travel on a civilian road for any reason, in Korea it was common.
A 2001 image of one of my unit’s bradleys traveling through a densely populated Korean village.
From my own personal experience I know how dangerous these convoys can be. I have led multiple convoys of Bradleys before during my time in Korea around the time frame and even on the very road in question that the accident happened. Korean civilians in the 2nd Infantry Division area grow up around the large military equipment and have lost respect for how dangerous the equipment can be. It was a common sight back then to see Korean civilians walking on the white line on the side of the road despite heavy armoured vehicles and tanks coming down the road behind them. They would simply continue to walk on the white line with the hands over their ears to muffle the sounds of the passing tanks.
My unit had plenty of close calls with one incident I especially remember when my Bradley was driving through the densely populated city of Pocheon and a lady talking on a cell phone walked in front of my Bradley. I yelled at my driver to stop over the intercom and fortunately he stopped in time to not hit the woman who simply looked up in surprise to see a Bradley coming at her when we were barely able to stop in time from hitting her. How she remained oblivious to a 25 ton hulk of metal driving down Highway 43 is beyond me?
Unlike the SGT Nino and SGT Walker’s AVLB, my internal communications in the Bradley worked. However, it is not uncommon for these radios to go out during a convoy. 25 tons of metal bumping around on a road has the tendency to cause things to shake things out of place. That is why my unit had an SOP of at least every minute saying something over the radio to the driver to ensure communications are still working. There was a time my internal communications went out during a convoy and I started throwing candies from the turret at the open hatch of my driver to get his attention. This was our standard operating procedure to stop because it meant our communications went out and it worked the one time we had to use it.
Pedestrians and communications failures weren’t the only danger on these convoys, impatient civilian drivers were also a source of much concern. A convoy of Bradleys on a civilian road is a long, slow movement. The convoy is usually travelling around 20 miles per hour. Civilian vehicles would try to pass our convoys on blind turns and other areas where they cannot see oncoming traffic. The most dangerous civilian vehicles were the buses because they would try and pass a Bradley and then have an on coming car coming and then the bus would then merge right sometimes forcing Bradleys on to the shoulder of the road to avoid an accident. Many of my peers and I felt that it was only a matter of time before a tragic accident happens and were actually surprised it hadn’t happened already.
Highway 56 Accident Memorial built with funds raised by the soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the US military was not the only ones to use tracked vehicles on these roads. The Korean Army actually used these roads much more than the US military due to their much larger force footprint in the area. I have personally seen for myself tracked Korean Army vehicles in accidents with civilian vehicles[xxxi]. The dangers of driving on Korean roads in the 2ID area of operations was danger faced by both militaries.
To make matters worse is that many of these roads with heavy civilian traffic and pedestrians in the 2ID area are small and narrow and should not have tracked vehicles on them in the first place. The stretch of road on Highway 56 where the accident occurred is a perfect example of one of these poorly built roads, because there was no shoulder or sidewalk for the girls to walk on to avoid traffic. It is clear that USFK bears responsibility for what happened that day, but the US military shouldn’t be the only ones held accountable for what happened that day.
With such poor road conditions in the 2ID area that were posing a risk to civilians, why had the Korean government not done anything to expand the roads or even add sidewalks along roads with heavy military traffic? This is a question Korean politicians do not want to answer. A simple sidewalk along that road would have saved those two girls lives that day. Because of this fact it was in the interest of the Korean government to deflect any responsibility for what happened solely on the US military.
Site of the accident today. Notice how the government has since widened the road and added a sidewalk.
Also since the accident the Korean government has quietly begun expanding roads and adding sidewalks in the 2ID area in order to prevent future accidents. However, this is all too little to late for Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun. These two girls tragically became the victims of something that could have been easily prevented. If Korean societal attitudes were different (pedestrians not giving way for military vehicles), if the Korean government expanded roads and sidewalks, if the breakdown in basic safety measures within the unit did not happen, and finally if the internal communications systems of the AVLB worked properly these two girls would be alive today. It is a shame that everyone involved with this accident will have to live with for the rest of their lives.
Another shame from the aftermath of the tragedy is the willful demagoguery and manipulation of this accident by Korean NGOs and politicians to advance their own agendas. The US military had sacrificed over 37,000 lives during the Korean War and had been helping maintain security on the Korean peninsula for over 50 years which was directly responsible for setting conditions for the economic miracle that took place in Korea. Despite all the US military has done for the Republic of Korea, not one person in the Korean government had the moral courage to mediate what happened and instead they all competed to see who can demagogue the accident the most for their own domestic political purposes. With his anti-US platform and the aid of the media, Roh Moo-hyun would prove he was the biggest demagogue of them all, by going on to win a narrow victory in the 2002 presidential election[xxxii]. Incredibly the aftermath of the June 2002 armored vehicle accident had been enough to elect a political nobody to the presidency of South Korea.
Next Posting: Lessons Learned from the Tragedy
Related Posting: Scenes of the Highway 56 Memorial and accident site.
Recommended Reading: USFK Accident & Anti-American Orgy
Note: I am trying to make this posting as accurate as possible a depiction of what really happened on June 13, 2002 in order to disspell the number of Internet rumors and urban myths surrounding this accident. If you were a member of the unit involved in the accident please leave a comment to further clarify exactly what happened that day. Likewise if people have any more information about the Korean and USFK reactions to the accident please feel free to leave a comment as well. Please save any comments for USFK recommendations for the upcoming posting. Thanks.
[i] Joshua Ray, Korean Mediator, http://koreanmediator.blogspot.com/2005/10/june-13-2002-my-personal-account-of.html, accessed 10 July 2007
Joshua Ray was a member of the unit involved in the accident and he recounts the convoy and what happened that day on both his blog and a follow up Stars & Stripes article he wrote.
[ii] Jeon Ick-jin, “Radio Blamed for Accident”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 06 August 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1906943
[iii] “Lee Ho-jeong, “US Vehicle Kills Two Korean Teens”, Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper, 14 June 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1904883
[vi] Jennifer Veale, “Just the Facts”, Foreign Policy, January/February 2007, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3737&page=2
[viii] “Lee Ho-jeong, “US Vehicle Kills Two Korean Teens”, Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper, 14 June 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1904883
[ix] “Clear Up US Army Tragedy”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 04 July 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1905664
[x] Lee Chul-jae, “US Ambassador Apologizes for Deaths of Girls in June Accident”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 30 July 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1906700
[xi] Min Seong-jae, “US Envoy Extends Apology from Bush”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 28 November 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1911685
[xii] “Clear Up US Army Tragedy”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 04 July 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1905664
[xiii] Michael Breen, The Koreans, (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2004), Chapter 1 The Three Miracles
[xiv] “West Sea Battle Survivors Struggle to Build Future”, Chosun Ilbo, 28 June 2006, http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200606/200606280025.html
[xv] Jeremy Kirk, “Two US Soldiers Shoved, Spat On at Seoul Station”, Stars & Stripes, 21 December 2002, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=11652&archive=true
[xvii] “Two Dead as Tank Falls from Rural Bridge”, Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper, 18 February 2003, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1936133
[xix] Hwang Hae-rym & T.D. Flack, “Korea Plans Drive for Safer Roads”, Stars & Stripes, January 18, 2006, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=33528&archive=true
[xx] David Steinberg, Korean Attitudes Toward the United States (M.E. Sharpe, 2005), pg 206
[xxii] “Korean Soldier Accidentally Killed Iraqi”, Chosun Ilbo, 13 April 2005, http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200504/200504130032.html
[xxiii] Jung Sung-ki, “Kurd Official Killed in Traffic in Erbil”, The Korea Times, 02 February 2006, http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2006/2/kurdlocal98.htm
[xxiv] “South Korea Decides Compensation Sum for Girls Killed by US Armored Vehicle”, People’s Daily, 20 July 2002, http://english.people.com.cn/200207/20/eng20020720_100059.shtml
[xxv] Franklin Fischer, “Lawyer: Americans Can Expect Fair Trial In Korea”, Stars & Stripes, 15 April 2007, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=52677&archive=true
[xxvi] “Not Guilty Verdict”, Chosun Ilbo newspaper, 22 November 2002, http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200211/200211210035.html
[xxvii] Teri Weaver, “Three Years Later, Walker Still Haunted By Deaths of Two Korean Girls”, Stars & Stripes, 01 May 2005, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=27977&archive=true
[xxviii] Jeon Ik-jin & Park Hyun-young, Army Reprimanded Four After Accident that Killed Two Teenagers”, Joong Ang Ilbo, 16 December 2002, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1912434
[xxix] Joshua Ray, “Higher Ups Put Safety Second”, Stars & Stripes, 22 November 2002, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=125&article=14274&archive=true
[xxx] Jeremy Kirk & Choe Song-won, “As Exercise at the DMZ Begins, Area Residents Say Relations with the US Are Better”, Stars & Stripes, 02 October 2003, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=17194&archive=true
[xxxi] “Two Dead as Tank Falls from Rural Bridge”, Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper, 18 February 2003, http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=1936133
[xxxii] Jennifer Veale, “Seoul Searching”, Foreign Policy, January/February 2007, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3669