Spurred by intensifying anti-Americanism, emotional media outbursts and rumblings in parliament, South Korea and the U.S. armed forces are taking a hard look at the privileged legal status of American soldiers.
Growing hostility between South Koreans and the more than 40,000 GIs stationed in South Korea has surfaced since last summer's Olympic Games, when there were charges of unfair coverage by NBC television and insensitivity by U.S. athletes.Since the Games ended on Oct. 2, there have been at least six radical student attacks on U.S. facilities, including two on premises used primarily by military family members.
"The soldiers are angry and out for blood," said an American attached to the U.S. base. The hostility has affected relations with Korean soldiers attached to the U.S. Army,he added.
A few weeks ago in Itaewon, the nightclub strip close to U.S. Army headquarters, a street brawl involving hundreds erupted after several GIs got into a fight with a taxi driver. The Seoul government will try one of the Americans for assault.
The document that regulates almost every facet of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, from land use to criminal jurisdiction, is the 1966 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Critics say the agreement infringes on South Korean sovereignty. Those with intimate knowledge of the document say it is mostly the people interpreting it who are doing the infringing.
In re-examining the pact, the two sides are responding to local criticism of the way U.S. forces operate and indirectly to a general feeling that the two countries must change things to foster an equal partnership.
The U.S. Army was considered a saviour after it helped fight the 1950-53 Korean War, but in recent years radical students have denounced the continuing presence of American troops on the peninsula as an obstacle to Korean unity.
Without necessarily going that far, many ordinary South Koreans have been asking why U.S. Army headquarters still occupies one of the best pieces of real estate in Seoul, why its television station blankets the capital and other cities with alien culture and its personnel seem to be above South Korean law.
On a broader level, many South Koreans, proud of their country's spectacular economic growth, resent what they see as Washington's heavy-handed trade pressures and its unrelenting demands for the revaluation of their currency, the won, to curb soaring exports.
In this climate, the agreement has been made a symbol of the inequalities in the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Several members of parliament have urged revision of the agreement and the government and ruling party have begun researching possible amendments.
"Our attention should be addressed to getting rid of the points that have received the most complaints from the Korean people," said K.S. Ryu, director of National Security Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, who will help negotiate the changes.
Although it has not received a formal request for revision, U.S. Army headquarters said it expects to have background papers ready by early November.