Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Top Five Lessons Learned from the Tragedy of 2002
» by GI Korea

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the 2002 Armored Vehicle Accident from all sides of this issue to include the Korean public, government, and media, but I am going to focus my concluding comments solely on the US government and military since my prior posting clearly showed the many of the lessons Koreans can learn from this tragic accident. From the American perspective the bottom line is that from all levels of US government and military commands there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this tragedy that are relevant to not only people working or stationed in Korea, but in other countries as well. What happened in 2002 could easily happen in another country and have the same side effects that continue to persist today in Korea, if not handled properly. That is why it is important that what happened in 2002 is not forgotten by the military as the years go by and hopefully my top five lessons learned can serve as constructive criticism to ensure such mistakes are not repeated.

1. Recognize Public Sentiment
An important lesson that should be learned from the US government perspective is to realize what the sentiment of the Korean public was at the time. There was a number of clear signs early on that showed that the accident could explode into a major diplomatic incident. First there was ongoing trend of anti-US incidents cumulating over the past few years, the World Cup had brought Korean nationalism to all time highs, and Korea was in a Presidential election year; the US Embassy should have predicted what was going to happen in response to the accident when these factors are considered.

The 2000 Yongsan Water Dumping Scandal was one of many anti-US incidents leading up to the 2002 anti-US orgy of hate.

The US government had a few weeks to coordinate a response plan because the accident did not begin to make major headlines and draw large protests until after the conclusion of the World Cup. The USFK leadership had already made numerous apologies, but the US government did not give official apologies until a month after the accident probably because they felt the numerous USFK apologies were sufficient[i]. President George Bush even ended up apologizing for the accident a few months later, but by then it was too late and the perception that America’s apologies being insincere had firmly taken root in Korean society.

In a Stars & Stripes interview of a South Korean man this is what he had say a year after the accident happened, “There is still no apology from the US government.”[ii] A full year after the accident and people in the Korean public still thought the US government had not yet apologized. I have spoken with Koreans that to this day believed that the US government never apologized for the accident. This was all made possible because the US government had incorrectly judged Korean societal attitudes; it should have been apparent that USFK apologies were not going to be sufficient to meet public expectations and vigorous apologies from at least the US ambassador should have immediately been made. The US government has obviously learned from this accident because when a Korean woman was killed in a traffic involving a USFK truck in 2005,[iii] apologies from the US government were quick to come to include from President George Bush himself which helped prevent the accident from having any political consequences.

2. Make Apologies Consistent with the Local Culture
Additionally with the apologies that were made in 2002, which I have no doubt were sincere by all people involved, Korean critics were able to claim they were not sincere because the people making them showed little emotion. US military and government officials are more reserved in regards to showing emotions, where Koreans are very emotional people and they expect sincere apologies to be made emotionally.

As corny as this sounds, if the people making the apologies would have showed more emotions when making the apologies it would have helped to calm the fury because the Korean public would have interpreted it as showing real remorse. I’m not saying the US ambassador or the USFK general need to cry and shave their heads but something showing a little emotion would have been better then delivering robotic apology statements and press releases. The apologies of course would never be accepted by the anti-US groups but most average Koreans would have accepted them as being sincere if they saw the apologies made in the first place which leads to my next point.

3. Directly Engage the Korean Media
Another major lesson that the US government as well as USFK leadership should learn from the accident is how to manage Korean public relations. The US Embassy and USFK published many press releases about the accident that dispelled the Internet rumors and media sensationalism, but these press releases were pretty much limited to the US Embassy website and the Stars & Stripes newspaper. These are all media sources that the average Korean does not read. Even though USFK had plenty of reliable information made available to the public they should have realized that the Korean media was never going to present this information on their own to the Korean public. They had their sensational storyline and were not going to do USFK or the US government any favors. With the appearance that USFK was not challenging the Internet rumors and media slurs directed against them it caused the perception to the Korean public that the rumors and slurs must be true.

To get the USFK side of the story told, both USFK and the US Embassy need to get more websites and spokesmen to be bilingual and integrated into the Korean media. With the campaign in Iraq, US government and military leaders there have made great strides in engaging the Arabic language media while also providing a tremendous amount information on their websites in Arabic and have even opened its own YouTube channel. In Korea the ability to get the American side of issues expressed to the domestic Korean audience is still severely lacking despite having forces stationed in the theatre far longer then US forces have been stationed in Iraq.

While stationed in Korea not once did I see a bilingual Public Affairs Officer (PAO) speak directly and challenge the Korean media on the various Korean news programs televised in the country. Press releases and interviews given in English to news reporters are not adequate to engage the Korean media because press releases are either ignored or quoted out of context and interviews in English are often deliberately mistranslated. The lack of bilingual PAO’s to engage the Korean media directly is a deficiency I continue to see handicapping USFK’s ability to get its side of the story told.

USFK in recent years has done a better job in providing more Korean language content on their websites such as with its Good Neighbor site, but it is still inadequate to penetrate the vibrant South Korean Internet culture. For example the USFK website doesn’t even fully open up in some popular web browsers such as Firefox and doesn’t even have a link to translate the page into Korean unlike the Multi-National Force Iraq website which has a link on its front page to translate the website into Arabic. South Korea has a number of Internet message boards and content sharing communities to include YouTube where many South Koreans rely on to get their news from, but USFK has to date done little to engage this audience. Though there has been some improvement in directly engaging the Korean media, USFK continues to be nearly as deficient in this area as it was back in 2002.

4. Make Decisions Based Off How the Korean Public Would Perceive It
The next lesson learned which I mentioned earlier in my earlier posting is that the decision by USFK Commander General Leon LaPorte to court martial the two soldiers was a tremendous mistake due to senior leadership only thinking about how the court martial would be perceived in their American oriented minds and not how it would be perceived in the audience they were trying to target, the Korea public. The court martial decision was a disaster that validated much of the propaganda of the anti-US groups and reignited the anti-US protests once again after they had some what died down; not to mention the effect the trial was having on the two soldiers being tried for purely political reasons by their command.

Former USFK Commander General Leon LaPorte.

Since then USFK has improved in this regard which was noted on how it handled the 2005 traffic accident that caused the death of a Korean woman. The soldiers involved in that court martial were not court martialled thus preventing anti-US groups from making cover up claims. Any decisions made by senior leaders that target the Korean public need to made not on how someone in the American public would perceive it, but how the Korean public would perceive it.

5. Improving Small Unit Safety
The biggest lesson that should be learned from this accident is that military unit leaders both large and small, need to better appreciate concerns in regards to the safety of the surrounding civilian population. At the time the US military took great care to ensure safe training that protects our servicemembers from harm, but obviously in regards to this accident little thought was put into making sure the training was safe for Korean civilians as well.

It is important to realize for people not stationed in Korea at the time, that it wasn’t just this accident where little thought was put in to the safety of the surrounding population. Many times while I was stationed in Korea during this timeframe “tactical” movements were done with tired soldiers on roads that had heavy Korean vehicle and pedestrian traffic as part of some larger training operation. I even had a senior unit commander tell me there is no such thing as an administrative convoy in Korea, everything is tactical. So it wasn’t uncommon to find your unit participating in an all night training mission and then the next morning with little to no sleep conduct a tactical convoy to another training area for another mission.

The unit involved in the 2002 accident was participating in one of these training operations and had little sleep and time to conduct a proper convoy when the accident happened. Yes the small unit leadership was at fault for the safety aspects that helped lead to the accident, but if proper policies had been set by higher commanders to ensure all convoys traveling on Korean roads had proper sleep and administrative time, then possibly this accident could have been avoided. The strict implementation of such policies should have been quite obvious considering the danger of the narrow country roads in the 2ID area of operations that are filled with heavy Korean vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Example of a USFK convoy rehearsal.

Since the accident, USFK has implemented draconian safety practices in regards to convoy safety. I once sat through a five hour convoy rehearsal that was briefed to the Assistant Division Commander of the 2nd Infantry Division. That is how serious convoy safety became. Also, no longer are tracked vehicles allowed on civilian roads. All tracked vehicles are now shipped on military flatbed trailers to the different training areas. Also the driver’s training for new drivers in USFK is extremely intense and I personally believe that the 2nd Infantry Division has the strongest driver’s training and traffic safety measures in the entire United States Army now.

Additionally measures have been taken to ensure proper sequencing of training missions to avoid conducting convoys with little to no sleep. Additionally there is always enough administrative time available to conduct proper convoy procedures before traveling on Korean roads. These are all proper policies set by the higher leadership that are now vigorously enforced by small unit leaders. The 2002 accident happened for variety of reasons, but from solely a military perspective this accident could have prevented if the safety polices that exist today had been enforced back then.

The attention to small unit safety I say is the most important lesson learned because the prior lessons in regards to engaging the media and understanding Korean customs and cultures if not corrected will not kill anybody; slacking on small unit safety will. Every time I have ever conducted a convoy since then, I think back to this accident. I continuously brief soldiers about what happened to Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun because today few soldiers have ever heard of this accident unless they were in Korea during this timeframe. This small unit traffic accident ended up having strategic consequences for the US government that still reverberates to this day and should not be forgotten as the years go by as less and less people are familiar with what happened.

Regrettably the 2002 accident took on much political connotations instead of directing energy at improving traffic safety overall in Korea. Despite these political connotations we as military still cannot forget that at the heart of this issue poor safety policies and decisions by members of the US military directly caused two families to be without their daughters today. This is indisputable and a shame we as a US military will have to continue to live with. No civilian families should ever have to lose the lives of their loved ones due to a preventable military traffic accident.

This most important lesson learned is where USFK has made the most sweeping improvements in. Let’s hope that this lesson learned is something that is never forgotten and a lesson that all other military units can learn from to avoid such tragedies from ever happening again.

Note: If you haven’t already make sure to read my prior posting that explains in great detail what happened in regards to the 2002 Armored Vehicle Accident. Also feel free to add any other lessons learned you feel are pertinent to this issue in the comments section.

[i] 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

[ii] Jeremy Kirk, “US Troops and South Koreans Mark Somber Anniversary”, Stars & Stripes, 15 June 2003, http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=15437&archive=true

[iii] Seth Robson & Hwang Hae-rym, “Family Says It Forgives 8th Army Driver Who Hit Woman” Stars & Stripes, 19 June 2005, http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=29027&archive=true

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