[TODAY]Why the silence on GI protests?The hardest things for Koreans with no legal knowledge to understand about the American criminal system are probably the jury system and the fact that a defendant in an involuntary manslaughter case is declared innocent if no criminal negligence is proven.
In Korea, the judge decides whether a defendant in a criminal case is guilty or innocent. In the United States, a jury of ordinary citizens makes the decision. In Korea, most people charged with involuntary manslaughter are found guilty but given suspended sentences. In the United States, there is a standard of "reckless disregard" for other persons' safety that must be met. This was the standard that was apparently not met in the prosecution of the U.S. servicemen charged with killing two Korean middle school girls with an armored vehicle north of Seoul.
Another thing the average Korean could not understand about this case was that the jury consisted only of U.S. soldiers. While that is always the case in the U.S. military, Koreans suspected from the beginning that this jury of soldiers could hardly hand down an impartial judgment on fellow soldiers.
The protests of civic groups over the court ruling rise primarily from those differences in culture and law. But the protests are gradually becoming less about the verdict and more about anti-Americanism. Some U.S. facilities in Seoul have been attacked with Molotov cocktails and some entertainment spots have banned American soldiers. Some civic groups are planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to protest in front of the White House. It is clear that Americans regard these incidents as an anti-American movement that seems to have swept Korean society.
Underlying the spread of protests against the tragic affair is Koreans' reaction to the U.S. administration's hard-line policy against North Korea, especially President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" comment, which caused much public angst in South Korea. The younger generation in particular regards the armored car incident as an extension of the Nogun-ri incident where U.S. soldiers fired on innocent civilians, allegedly mistakenly, during the Korean War. The Maehyang-ri shooting range used by United States Forces Korea has also caused much discontent among the neighboring residents, and the leaks of toxic wastes from U.S. bases have added to the discontent. Many Koreans think these things hurt the pride of the Korean people.
There can be no favorable time for an outbreak of anti-Americanism, but this is a very sensitive time to allow Korean-American relations go sour. There is no telling where the North Korean nuclear problem will lead. Because of tensions between the Kim Dae-jung administration and the Bush administration, Korean-American relations could be damaged if anti-American rallies spread. Both governments seem powerless to keep relations from collapsing.
Once the North Korean problem is solved, it is inevitable that the Korean-American alliance will be revised. The United States, in accordance with a 1989 U.S. law, has already begun a three-step withdrawal plan by withdrawing 7,000 soldiers in 1990. Peacetime military operational command was also handed back to the Korean military. Had the three-step reduction of troops been on track, we would only have had a symbolically significant number of U.S. soldiers remaining in Korea now. The process was stopped by the nuclear crisis initiated by Pyeongyang in 1993, but the plan is still in effect. Large-scale U.S. troop reductions in Korea would be a fundamental revision of the U.S.-Korea alliance.
It would be dangerous if this anti-American sentiment triggered a U.S. decision to resume the Nunn-Warner troop withdrawals without regard to the efforts to resolve the question of North Korea's nuclear program. The scale and speed of U.S. troop withdrawals from Korea must depend on the level of tension on the Korean Peninsula, the state of North-South relations and improvements in our military preparedness. The Kim Dae-jung administration, which has been silent concerning the protest rallies, is neglecting its duty. A Blue House official commented irresponsibly to a foreign journalist that the protesters represented only a radical fringe that wanted to fan anti-American sentiment.
The government should explain the differences in the legal systems of the two countries, state its position on revision of the Status of Forces Agreement and clarify what both governments can do to pacify the people's anger.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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