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US Troops in South Korea Under More Scrutiny

Sergeant Major of the US Army, Raymond Chandler III, speaking to reporters at 8th Army HQ, (Yongsan, Seoul, November 7, 2011)

Sergeant Major of the US Army, Raymond Chandler III, speaking to reporters at 8th Army HQ, (Yongsan, Seoul, November 7, 2011)

A series of criminal incidents involving troops and others affiliated with the U.S. military in the country has prompted a renewed curfew for U.S. troops in South Korea. The police and the U.S. 8th Army are at odds over whether the number of such serious incidents is on the rise.

The U.S. military has extended a curfew for its personnel in South Korea until January 6. This comes after a young U.S. Army private was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a South Korean court for the rape of a high school girl, just north of Seoul.

A 30-day curfew was implemented on October 7 following the sexual assault and other incidents involving troops, military family members or civilian workers for the U.S. military here. The off-installation nightly curfew was ordered by the commander of all American forces in the country, Army General James Thurman. His predecessor, General Walter Sharp, who retired earlier this year, lifted, in July 2010, an unpopular curfew which had been in place for nine years.

Sharp said the time had come to end the restrictions because he believed troops could be trusted to do the right thing. U.S. Eighth Army officials say nearly all of their troops in the country are doing just that. They contend the number of serious incidents, involving no more than one-tenth of one percent of those falling under the Status of Forces Agreement, has been on the decline.

However, the National Police Agency in South Korea has released statistics showing a rising number of rapes, robberies, thefts, and other acts of violence committed by the troops and other personnel working for the U.S. military, in the past few years.

In the past decade, the total number of such incidents in South Korea has been about 225.

But the crimes involving the U.S. military community sometimes become front-page news in a country where there is a deep seated unease among many about the continuing presence of foreign soldiers on their soil. The sergeant major of the U.S. Army, Raymond Chandler, acknowledges that criminal incidents by American military personnel overseas tend to get intense scrutiny by those in the host country.

"Any act of misconduct is bad. And, it doesn't matter where it is or where it happens. When a soldier doesn't do what they're supposed to do, that's not right" Chandler stated. "It's even magnified or made worse when we're here in someone else's country as their guest."

Chandler, the senior enlisted member of the Army, is meeting with U.S. and South Korean forces here this week. His visit comes amid mixed reaction to the 10-year sentence imposed by a South Korean judge last week. It is the most severe ruling imposed on a U.S. service member in the country in 20 years.

Twenty-year-old Private First Class Kevin Flippin was convicted of breaking into the room of an 16-year-old girl, repeatedly raping, beating and burning her and then stealing the equivalent o $4.50.

Although the prosecutor and some South Korean civic activist groups demanded an even harsher punishment for the American, some observers - especially U.S. service personnel - contend the soldier, who expressed remorse and had no prior criminal history, received a more severe sentence because he is a foreigner. Chandler is supporting the tough prison term.

"This young man was found guilty of a heinous crime against a woman. And, the punishment that he received is well within the bounds of the law and I support that 100 percent," Chandler said.

The U.S. government has apologized to South Korea for the rape. Another U.S. soldier is also facing sexual assault and theft charges for a mid-September incident in Seoul which allegedly followed a night of drinking in a university area.

The U.S. military has had a significant presence in South Korea since the armistice halting the civil war on the peninsula in 1953.