You Can Expect a Fair Trial in Korea, Sort of…

Prominent K-blog commenter and lawyer Brendon Carr offers some outstanding advice in today’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. Brendon hits on a number of potential issues with soldiers who get in trouble in Korea. Here is probably the most telling statement from the article:

Beyond language difficulties is the prospect that South Koreans who give testimony might feel it culturally acceptable to lie, especially if it will increase their chances of winning bigger damages, Carr said.

This culture, Carr said, does not place the same value on truth or view the truth through the same prism that Americans do. There is very little social disapproval of making false official statements in order to achieve an objective for your friend or relative or for a tribemate.

Once it breaks down to ˜those Americans versus us Koreans, many, many Koreans will perceive it as their duty to make sure that the Korean is the winner of the dispute. So there’s a lot of lying when witnesses come forward, Carr said.

This does not just happens to Americans because it is quite common for Koreans to lie against each other in order to win legal cases as well. As Brendon said it is part of the culture. Here is more advice:

Because there’s such a public bias against them and a political desire to kick the United States in the teeth by kicking a soldier said Carr, labor against this Korean domestic perception that soldiers are never punished.

But there’s also the prospect that anti-American groups might try to pressure authorities against the accused servicemember, said Jin.

About three years ago, Jin represented a soldier who, while drunk, stabbed a Korean in the neck. At first, Korean investigators concluded the assault had not involved an intent to kill, so authorities charged the soldier with battery, Jin said.

But anti-American activist groups weighed in, pressing police and prosecutors to charge the soldier with attempted murder, Jin said, and the prosecutor changed his mind.

The incident Brendon is referring to is the Shinchon Stabbing Incident. In May of 2004 4 GI’s and a KATUSA went and partied in the Shinchon area of Seoul. Apparently one of the soldiers stood on the back of a taxi to take a picture. Some concerned citizens exchanged some heated words with the soldiers about standing on the taxi to take a picture. I believe it is safe to assume that the Korean students who were the “concerned citizens” were probably equally drunk at the time considering it was 2AM in Shinchon.

Anyway a fight broke out which according to the court transcripts the “concerned citizens” started, but after the fight broke out more Koreans jumped in on a chance to pound on the soldiers. One of the soldiers who had just arrived at the scene because he was meeting his friends, pulled out a pocket knife in an effort to defend himself and his friends from the “concerned citizens” who were throwing bricks at him and even assaulting him with a broken beer bottle. As the soldier was assaulted by the mob the soldier held the knife to the throat of one of the attackers that was choking him for up to two minutes and during the struggle cut him. This pocket knife would later go on to be described in the Korean media as a military issue knife conjuring up images of some Rambo blade when in fact it was a simple pocket knife. The soldiers were eventually subdued by the mob and arrested by the police department not before they were able to take one of the soldiers and pose him for a propaganda picture:

This soldier fit the rogue GI profile the best, so he was taken by the mob and had his shirt ripped off to expose his tattoos that are often associated with gangsters in Korea and then had his pants pulled down in order to get this great picture to beam around Korea in order to build righteous outrage against the soldiers. Kim Jong-il’s ministry of propaganda couldn’t have done a better job than this. What is even more outrageous about this picture is that this soldier is not even the stabber. The guy who pulled the knife was to busy getting the crap kicked out of him and strangled by all the “concerned citizens”:

I had predicted at the time nothing would happen to the students and the soldier would get slammed and nobody would care and that is unfortunately what happened. The soldier in question, Pvt. John C. Humphrey was convicted of attempted homicide and was given a 2 1/2 year sentence in Korean prison. The only reason he was charged with attempted homicide was because of the anti-US groups lobbying the Korean justice system. What I found most outrageous about this case is that not one Korean in the mob that was fighting the soldiers was charged with anything. In fact they were treated as heroes.

Just to add to the excellent legal advice from Brendon Carr, remember if you are a foreigner in Korea you have no expectation of self defense even when a Korean takes a metal pipe and cracks you across the head with it:

Even after a Korean hits you with a metal pipe you cannot retaliate especially with a weapon like a knife. Pulling a knife in Korea is like pulling a gun in America. You just don’t do it without the possibility of serious repercussions. That is why I have always advocated swallowing your pride and walking away so you don’t have to face a “fair” Korean trial as one to many GI’s have already found out.



I am a US military veteran that has served all over the world to include in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. I have been blogging about Korea, Northeast Asia, and the US military for over 10 years.


  1. Yes, it is true. I have so many firsthand experiences regarding this.

    I forgot the exact number of perjury committed in Korean courts. But it was highest in Asia if not world.

    It derives from a hard core Confucianism idea that you are justified if you tell a lie to protect their dignity of families, country, race, etc.

  2. I found The Chosun Ilbo's article:

    "A Country of Liars by Kim Dae-joong"

    "National Intelligence Service director-designate Kim Seung-kyu, in a lecture he gave late in May when he was justice minister, said: "The three representative crimes of our country are perjury, libel and fraud." In simple comparison, not taking into account population ratio, South Korea saw 16 times as many perjury cases in 2003 than Japan, 39 times as many libel cases and 26 times as many instances of fraud. That is extraordinarily high given Japan's population is three times our own."

  3. Reading that article, I could see a mass of at least ESLers rising up in indignation at the "Orientalism" of Brendon's. In fact, some of you might remember a year or two or three ago, this same thing played out in one of the Korean papers. Somebody wrote a piece about the differences in the court/justice systems between East and West, and some female expat wrote a scathing reply about how that analysis was a perfect example of what Edward Said had meant about Western "imperialism" in Asia.

    This is something drilled into us in college (and below) in the humanities. You just can't say that kind of thing about the "Other."

    I remember my first year in Korea teaching only adults. I'd always try to tie whatever topic came up into both Korean and American culture. Sometimes, after they wanted to discuss this or that problem in America, I might say something as simple as, "What are some of the big problems in Korean society?"

    One of the things they would say frequently was simply, "Koreans lie too much."

    And in that first year, I couldn't get it. I would try work around what they were saying with something like, "Maybe you mean that Koreans try to "save face" or they don't tell the whole truth out of respect for elders" or something like that.

    When what they meant was, "Koreans lie too much."

    On the Shinchon case, after reviewing it for my site, — a few weeks after I did that review —- I changed my mind…

    I decided I believe this was a staged event – something I dismissed at first.

    Those images were said to have been taken by a freelance or internet journalist or some such person who told the press he was also going to go up to Dongduchon to record how the bastard GIs treat Koreans up there.

    I usually underestimate the significance of "coincidences" and I think that is what I did initially with this case.

    It is just too convienent…

    And I know over the years, there have been notes here and there about the Korean police warning USFK of plots by Hanchongryon and similar groups to stage incidents between GIs and Koreans in order to catch it on video or camera.

  4. The real issue is where is the USG or the USFK. In the case of Humphries, they seemed willing to throw him under the bus.

    Really, I am tired of the USFK and US military leadership in general not doing enough to defend these soldiers.

    When someone commits a serious crime, I have no sympathy. These brawls are another story.

    Right now, I'm appalled at how our State Department and Bush Administration is allowing another faux ally, Italy, to try an American soldier for MURDER for a friendly fire incident.

  5. The Acosta case I think was even worse than the Shinchon Stabbing Case because Acosta didn't even pull a knife and was hit across the head with a metal pipe. He was about to get thrown under the bus as well but fortunately some media and US governmental attention was able to help him out and he got no jail time but did pay $9,000 in fines for a fight he did not start and came out on the worst end of. Amazingly in this incident the Korean man who attacked Acosta with the pipe was at least fined if I remember correctly $2,000 which was given to him only after the media and governmental attention got involved.

    Pvt. Humphreys shouldn't have pulled out the knife, but just because he pulled out the knife does not excuse the actions of all the Koreans involved in starting the fight. Something should have been done to them as well.

    The Italy incident is just as ridiculous as the Shinchon Stabbing and more governmental attention needs to brought to these fraudulent cases but I have absolutely no faith in the US State Dept. to do anything.

  6. The State Department thinks these cases can be settled with quiet diplomacy. The reality is that PR and attention are what works. Seems in the Italian case, the GI involved has lost confidence in the US military and State Department to look out for his best interests. That's appalling since this soldier was totally cleared by a very thorough US investigation.

    I see the same things in these Korean cases. The reality, is that the US should not be in Korea any more. It is not worth the hassle.

  7. usinkorea,

    Thanks for the links, that was some fascinating reading on how far back the SOFA issue really goes.

  8. Kate, that is one jacked up story. Unbelievable he only got a three year suspended sentence. I would be interesting to know if he is still married to his Japanese wife or not if he is still alive.

  9. I found it interesting that the National Assembly voted unanimously to condemn the GIs and call for a SOFA so they can put them in jail for events like that. My thoughts on that are tempered somewhat by the fact the Korean gov was in a transitional period between the ouster of Rhee and the solidification of power by Park.

    But, still, it kind of touches on the common Korean idea that the US "controlled" Korea when it was very poor. The US was frustrated by how little it could control Rhee and Park also played up nationalism when he needed to pressure DC.

    Another thing about those articles, if you go over the headlines during that period, there are frequent stories of either US or ROK troops shooting it out with NK infiltrators.

    But, in both of the cases in those articles, the Korean politicians demanded the right to put the soldiers on trial for murder —

    —when they were on guard duty and shot Koreans breaching the fence line — one of them being right up on the DMZ….

  10. If im not mistaken, the U.S. military stationed in korea is down sizing in souel…I think they are redirecting them to waegon and or busan (pusan)…which is a good thing. Most of the young and new generation/ population of koreans live in the higly populated urban cities. I know waegon has more of a rural look to it. I'm not sure about busan. I think busan is just more spread out yet still a big city to be in. The koreans in the south of south korea should be easier to deal with than the ones in north of south korea. Yeah, i agree…pulling out a knife is like pulling out a gun in the U.S…since the korean government has banned guns in there country.

  11. The servicemembers stationed in the 2nd Infantry Division and at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul are planned to consolidate on Camp Humphreys outside of Pyeongtaek by 2012 if the Korean government doesn't successfully delay the move which they are trying to do.

  12. Can't always expect fairness in a foreign land. Bias is everywhere you look. Would it be so different in other countries for them? Maybe a bit less brutality but pain doesnt last forever…sometimes

  13. Thanks for a great post, Mr. Carr. I'm a Korean American who has lived in Seoul for most of my adult life, yet I admit Korea can be a wild west sort of country.

  14. I think Humphreys got off easy for an attempted murder charge, plus you know he went to a jail with other soldiers tried for crimes in Korea. 30 months is nothing for attempted murder and if I remember right he got off with a 24 month sentence instead of 30 months.

  15. Heh, I read quite a bit of different blogs and other stories about this incident. Well let me say that the guards at Chonan prison were very courteous and polite. They were like family for the 24 months I ended up spending there. I admittedly made a mistake pulling out that knife, but growing up in Texas it felt natural to have a knife for hunting, working, fishing, etc. So you want to know what went down that night? We were crossing a street, the guy with all the tatt's (Jay) had crossed when the light went green and yes he was extremely drunk. A taxi almost hit him and honked and cussed at him etc. Jay responded by pushing down on the front bumper a few times. A guy running a flower shop began yelling at Jay for obvious reasons. They got into a shoving match and we separated them with help of the Katusa who was translating. We started to walk away and one of the Koreans spit on the back of Jays head. He turned around and more shoving pursued… yelling etc. I don't even remember who threw the first punch. If memory servers it was one of the "concerned" citizens. At this point I remember tons of Koreans coming out of bars and buildings with a lot of them on there cell phones. Some were filming with their cameras. The situation went from shoving to an all out mob in like 60 seconds. I remember feeling like I was in a mosh pit at an AC/DC concert. It was packed. We all ended up getting separated from each other. I had a bunch of guys on me. They claimed to be breaking up the fight by chocking me, hitting me with a brick or rock of some sort. Breaking bottles and swinging them at me. I imagine some of them might have been trying to stop the fight, but if they were it was extremely non-effective. Once I was over whelmed by the situation I remember thinking that I wasn't going to go out like this. I pulled the knife out of my back pack to try and scare them off. It might have worked if it wasn't so dark, they didn't even see it. I pushed away on the guys face who was choking me. A korean saw the knife in my right hand and tried to pull it from my hand. I pulled back, when I did this combined with the drunken pushing… well sadly it pierced the guys neck. Blood flowed out like water from a faucet. I freaked hard. Tried to run. Too many people. People later asked why I didn't try to save him if it was really an accident… I had a mob on me and thought I had just killed the guy. I guess I figured I would be next. Survival Instinct does not allow for rational thinking. If you think you can rationalize that situation with clear thought of potential consequences then your fooling yourself. I remember when they put me in the cop car (the police) he purposely unlocked the door. Me and my best friend were both in the back seat trying to hold the doors shut from the mob while the cop sat back… seemed like he wanted them to pull me and my friend out and beat on us some more… or maybe that's just my perception. I understand my charges were politically motivated. The guy who flew out from the pentagon or so he said, along with CID (I believe that's what their investigation team was called) anyhow they all told me not to say a thing for fear of more political heat. I played ball. I was told to tell them I was extremely drunk even though I wasn't. I played ball. When I was at the police station I remember calling my dad telling him I thought I had killed some one and told him I loved him and was sorry. I remember praying to God for that man's life, and I remember seeing his mother's tears when I was interviewed.. I only wanted to get them away from me and scare them off. The stabbing was an accident in all honesty. Life is sacred no matter what the situation or race or nationality. In the end, I had 2 years to reflect on my life. I'm now finishing my degree in MicroBiology and BioChemistry. My life couldn't be better. I'm still friends with my SOFA guards. I can now speak a lot more Korean, I actually go to a Korean Christian Presbyterian Church because I have always liked the Korean culture in general. Sure they lied their asses off in court, but loyalty to one's race and country is to be expected of anyone who is patriotic. I'm not mad, the judge told me he would give me a self defense sentence which was typically 2+ years… even though I was convicted of attempted murder. Basically the conviction was to appease the people of S. Korea, and the sentence was relative to a "self defense with a deadly weapon" conviction in that country. The judge was truly fair to both parties in that aspect. I've always been a nice guy, I love anyone who is kind natured which I feel describes most S Koreans that I met over there. I have no bad feelings towards them as a people. Anyway It's a nice day in Texas. God Bless everyone. Don't get to wrapped up with the past, just learn what you can and move forward. Evolve. Mature. Love.

  16. Also if anyone is in contact with Jin, tell him I said thank you again for all that he did for me, and also that I wish him luck with his International Law thing that he had going on after I left.

  17. Well.

    I don't know about y'all but my respect level for John Humphreys just went from Zero to Pretty High.

  18. I find it hard to believe that someone charged with attempted murder is that successful. How many ex-felons do you know that are that successful? I'm sorry but, it is hard to believe that this is even the real John Humphreys who posted this. Anyone could post there name as John Humphreys and say those things, or even a friend or family member of his or a complete stranger could. If he wanted to make a rebuttal after all these years why do it on someones blog? Why not go to the newspapers or the local news, where they can authenticate it is him and prove that his story is true that he is saying right now?

  19. Meh I was just reminessing really, I thought this blog was fair about what happened. Ummm.. well I am using a university email registered to my name.. and the various SOFA guards who are on my facebook can verify who I am if the pictures don't. Look me up.. John Humphreys – Austin Texas… on Facebook. Anyway man peace.. and fyi success is determined by the ability to learn from your mistakes. ttyl

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