U.S. apologizes to South Korea for girls' deaths

Sunday, July 28, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- The American military said it was deeply sorry for the deaths of two teen-age girls struck by a U.S. armored vehicle in South Korea, but anti-U.S. demonstrators said Saturday the apology was not sincere.

The military also defended its decision to prosecute the two soldiers involved in the June 13 accident under military law on charges of negligent homicide, rather than hand them over to South Korean authorities for trial.

"There have been many inaccurate reports that have created false impressions in the Korean public concerning the genuineness of our sorrow and the actions we have taken since the accident," said the public affairs office of the U.S. military headquarters in Seoul.

South Korean activists have held frequent protests to demand that the soldiers be tried in a South Korean court. On Saturday, 1,000 anti-U.S. demonstrators gathered in a park in the capital, Seoul.

They carried signs that read "U.S. troops out of Korea" and "Bush, apologize!" and dozens of them briefly scuffled with riot police who prevented them from marching toward the U.S. Embassy. No arrests or serious injuries were reported.

Nara Lee, a 20-year-old student, said the military's apology was "aimed at easing public opinion" and that the U.S. should also express regret.

The code governing jurisdiction over the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea has long been a point of dispute. Some South Koreans believe their government should have more legal power in accidents and crimes involving American troops.

But the U.S. military said in its statement Friday that the South Korean military enforced a similar code.

"The tradition of the military retaining jurisdiction in cases involving soldiers carrying out their official duties is not unique to the U.S. military," the U.S. military said in a statement.

Sgt. Mark Walker and Sgt. Fernando Nino, both from the 2nd Infantry Division, were on a training mission near the border with communist North Korea when their armored carrier hit 14-year-old Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun on a public road.

The soldiers face up to six years in a U.S. prison if convicted in a military court.

A South Korean civilian court could issue a maximum jail sentence of five years on the same charge.

Under a bilateral treaty, the U.S. military can allow South Korea to try American soldiers involved in accidents while on duty.

In its statement, the U.S. military denied Korean media reports that Walker and Nino were "initially cavalier and unconcerned," and that they brawled with South Korean soldiers.

Walker, the driver, "was so distraught about the accident that he was in tears and could not walk without assistance. He was completely inconsolable," the statement said.

The U.S. military criticized non-governmental "extremist groups" in South Korea, saying one was "using the Internet to promote unlawful violence against the accused soldiers."

It said it was working to compensate the families of the girls.

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