DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — Amid the cacophony of North Korean war threats, the streets are uneventful outside Camp Casey, an often-buzzing American military base about 20 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) near the North Korean border.
On weekends, the entertainment district just outside the front gates, known as “the Ville,” usually gears up for bevies of American servicemen looking for a drink and, sometimes, suggestive young Filipina women who work at close to 70 “juicy bars” — slang for unsavory hangouts in the area.
The seedy environment attracts its share of miscreants who occasionally get caught up in alcohol-fueled brawls, and who some South Koreans complain perpetrate rapes and thefts in their host country.
In Dungducheon and other base towns, a raft of incidents throughout March involving 10 servicemen was pushing Washington towards an ill-timed public relations mess with its South Korean allies — thanks to discontent among the communities surrounding the bases.
The incidents first stirred up public sentiment on March 2, when a soldier in the nightlife hub of Itaewon, in central Seoul, randomly fired a BB gun in a crowded area. In a car chase that ensued, three servicemen went into hiding in the nearby garrison, but later surrendered themselves to police.
The moment wasn’t auspicious: both sides need to appear unified against North Korean war threats, particularly as the allies continue to be engaged in joint military drills, known as Foal Eagle, until April 30.
A spate of confrontations throughout the month culminated when a bar brawl on St. Patrick’s Day weekend put one US serviceman in the hospital with knife wounds. The 2nd infantry division, a unit of 6300 servicemen stationed throughout the area between Seoul and the DMZ, began enforcing a complete alcohol ban for just over a week. The division commander lifted the embargo last Sunday.
“As the only permanently deployed Division in the Army we face a very real threat daily as evidenced by current media headlines,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Cardin in a message on March 22 to US servicemen and families, referring to press reporting on the fiascos.
“Recent events in the division have called our Division’s discipline and readiness into question, and threaten to destroy the trust and respect we have earned here in Korea over the last 60 years,” he wrote.
Adding to the embarrassment, South Korean foreign ministry also intervened, summoning a US embassy official to explain the situation in late March.
The Pentagon has learned the hard way from South Korea’s anti-military bases a decade ago. This time, Washington averted growing tensions before they got of hand, said Katharine Moon, a political scientist and author of "Protesting America: Democracy and the US-Korea Alliance."
South Korea is home to occasional demonstrations against US military presence. Passionate protests reached a height in the early 2000s, when an armored vehicle ran over and killed two schoolgirls, and activists alleged that bases were responsible for environmental contamination.
“The response has been a lot quicker,” Moon said, "since the UFSK established programs and procedures to address such problems after the crisis in the early 2000s." She was using the acronym for the US Forces Korea, the official name of American military forces in the country.
Korean police also say that a policy in place since October 2011, stopping soldiers from going out after 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, has allayed the number of serious crimes.
Incidents like these add to a stereotype among some Koreans that American personnel commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Critics charge that Korean prosecutors must go through unnecessary legal roadblocks — as stipulated by the 1966 pact, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — to get them indicted and tried.
In 2011, the most recent year full data are available, 192 American servicemen were convicted of crimes. But 77 of them were traffic related, while 31 of them were classified as what the Korean National Police Agency calls “major crimes:” murder, rape, and theft, to name a few.
Considering more than 28,500 troops are stationed in South Korea, the number of crimes committed among that population is actually minuscule. But that isn't deterring politicians who are critical of them. “It is a fact that the percentage of cases not indicted is significantly higher in the USFK cases compared to Korean ones,” said Yoo Seung-woo, a member of the National Assembly, in a statement to GlobalPost.
Both sides revised the agreement in May 2012, allowing South Korean authorities to hold suspects in custody before they hand them over to US authorities. The change partially owed to a public outcry over two separate rapes committed by American servicemen in late 2011.
In the past, South Korean police had to hand over personnel to the US military when the case didn’t involve a major crime, such as murder and rape.
GlobalPost in-depth: Full coverage of the Korea crisis