Fair SOFA Amendment Needed

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Fair SOFA Amendment Needed

The negotiation for the revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Korea and the United States resumes today. Considering various conditions, this round of negotiation must yield clear results. In particular, if a smooth agreement were not reached on the issues over the legal jurisdiction of U.S. soldiers and the introduction of environmental clauses, we believe that it could damage the larger framework of the two nations' relationship. The United States must be aware of mounting critical public opinion after a U.S. pilot jettisoned bombs at the Maehyang-ri shooting range and the personnel working for the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) dumped toxic chemicals into the Seoul sewage system.

Of course, one side cannot do all the negotiating. If we ignore the other side's position and go to the negotiation table with an emotionally charged attitude of "all-or-nothing," we are liable to be blinded by trifles and miss bigger national interests. Above all, the SOFA revision negotiation should begin under the grand principle of mutual understanding that the presence of the USFK is necessary, and then work toward the direction of mutual benefits with changing situations in mind. We judge that it is not right to argue about being anti-American or pro-American when it comes to the SOFA negotiation. The United States, on its part, must show through its action that it is willing to create a fair and equal system to further consolidate bilateral security, as the U.S. representative who arrived in Seoul a few days ago commented.

Regarding the question of legal jurisdiction, the United States has stuck to the existing unequal clauses because of its distrust of the Korean criminal justice system. A typical example is the issue of when to hand over a criminal suspect to the Korean authorities. The United States should make a concession on this matter. The United States is reportedly asking Korea to abandon its legal jurisdiction over petty offenses in return, but Korea cannot accept it because this issue is directly related to its national sovereignty. As for the environmental issue, the current agreement merely states, "Public safety should be appropriately considered." It is necessary to impose specific regulations on the USFK to prevent environmental pollution, as is the case in Germany. For the past several decades, domestic environmental laws have seen dramatic transformations, and it is hard to understand why an exception should be allowed to USFK-related facilities. The USFK ought to show its willingness to keep up with the changed legal and social environment in its host country.

The treatment of Korean workers in USFK bases falls into the same category. According to the current agreement, the cooling-off period before launching a labor dispute is set for as much as 70 days. Even if the special nature of a military unit is taken into account, it is desirable to slash the number of days.

As president Kim Dae-jung mentioned in the past, we hope that on this occasion the SOFA will be amended to the level of the U.S.-Japan agreement. In the case of Japan, however, the environmental clause is insufficient, so to be more concrete, the SOFA must be upgraded to the level of U.S. Forces in Japan in addition to environmental clauses. Of course, there are many other problematic clauses, including the quarantine of agricultural products. However, it may be difficult to expect all of them to be handled during a two-day negotiation period. A visible outcome or at least some narrowing of gaps in opinions is definitely needed on the revision and installment of the legal jurisdiction and the environmental clauses. We cannot leave the unequal clauses of SOFA to keep offending Koreans’ sentiments, thus permanently undermining the Korea-U.S. relationship.

by Kil Chong-woo

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