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[Editorial] Questions remain over SOFA revision

Posted December. 29, 2000 19:15,   


Finally, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing U.S. troops in Korea has been revised. The SOFA, which took effect in 1967, was revised once in 1991. At that time, Korea and the United States agreed to amend the troop pact to the level of that between the U.S. and Japan but failed to do so. The latest SOFA revision was agreed upon and initialed on Thursday by representatives of the two governments after five years of on-and-off negotiations.

Heretofore, the SOFA was held up as an unfair agreement. The pact was criticized for protecting U.S. interests unilaterally and consequently damaging Korea-U.S. relations. From this point of view, it is fortunate that the two countries reached a successful compromise on the revision. The Korean government said that the troop pact was altered to bring it up to the level of the one between the U.S. and Japan, yet there are still problems.

In some details, the agreed revision provides for advancing the timing of transferring American military servicemen who are accused to serious crimes to Korean authorities from the current "upon the completion of all judicial proceedings" to "at the time of indictment." It also stipulates that if Korean police arrest a person protected by the SOFA for a serious crime, such as murder or rape, the Korean police will have the right to maintain custody.

However, the accord leaves room for dispute, as it limited to 12 crimes the number over which Korean authorities can exercise criminal jurisdiction. And the continuous custody of accused personnel will be allowed only in cases where murder or rape was involved. In view of the fact that a wide range of crimes could be committed in the future, the specification of some unpredictable offenses beforehand for judiciary action is unrealistic.

Accordingly, there is much room for the two countries to disagree over the disposition of the suspects, if and when they are found to have committed some specific crimes. In this regard, the two nations will have to address any concrete cases under the principle that criminal jurisdiction falls under the auspices of Korean sovereignty.

It is rather belated that the environmental clause was inserted in the SOFA. Considering the recent cases in which toxic substances were released from U.S. military bases into the Han River, such environmental protection regulations should have been put in place long ago. Also questionable is the fact that the environmental provisions are not incorporated in the SOFA main text but only in the Agreed Minutes and memoranda of special understanding, and that any environmental damage should be repaired. There was no stipulation that the affected area had to be returned to its original state. Since environmental problems could arise again at any time, the two governments will have to maintain close mutual consultation on the matter.

It is appropriate that the two sides reached, an accord, albeit belatedly, on the enhancement of regulations governing stable employment of the Koreans employed by the U.S. military and the participation of Korean officials in inspecting animals, plants and the products imported for to feed them by the U.S. Forces Korea.

That Korea and the U.S. were successful in resolving the SOFA revision issue is a credit to Washington's judgment of the need to wrap up the long-protracted SOFA negotiations before the end of President Bill Clinton's term of office. For the Korean side, the pact revision stopped short of meeting the people's expectations, but the one remaining question is how sincerely the U.S. will implement the revised pact.