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South Korea Reopens the Burger King Murder File

6 minute read
Geoffrey Cain / Seoul

It is one of South Korea’s most famous cold-case files, a sensational murder that drummed up sentiment against U.S. military bases in the country for nearly a decade. On April 3, 1997, a South Korean university student, Cho Chong Pil, 22, was found dead on the bathroom floor of a Burger King restaurant in Itaewon, a nightlife district popular among foreigners in central Seoul. He had been stabbed several times in the neck in what prosecutors later called a random “American gang-style” killing. After several days, they named two suspects who had dined together at the fast-food restaurant that evening: Arthur Patterson, the 17-year-old son of a U.S. Army contractor, and 18-year-old Korean American Edward Lee. Both admitted to witnessing the murder, and both accused each other of doing it.

It’s been over 10 years since the crime went to trial, and both suspects, after serving some prison time, are free. Now, the Burger King murder is back. Last month, prosecutors reopened the case after the unresolved crime got a wave of attention from a South Korean film and several television series this fall. Critics have long said the trial was bungled, claiming that a 1966 bilateral treaty (SOFA), which outlines the legal rights and responsibilities of U.S. soldiers in South Korea, hinders investigations into crimes committed by American servicemen and their families in South Korea. In 1998, the court dropped charges against Patterson, handing him an 18-month prison sentence for possessing an illegal weapon and destroying evidence, from which he was released early in 1999 as part of a widespread amnesty the government granted to 2000 convicts. The court found Lee guilty of murder, sentencing him to life in prison but later reduced the sentence to 20 years. In 1999, he was fully acquitted by the Supreme Court on a lack of evidence.

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The murder of Cho remains a mystery, a fact that has infuriated South Korean activists who made the crime a cause célèbre in their fight against the U.S. military presence in their country. After authorities promised to pursue Patterson’s case further in 1998, a prosecutor mistakenly failed to renew a travel ban on him. Patterson returned to California in 1999, where he remains today. (Lee, after being acquitted, also returned to the U.S.) In 2006, a Seoul court ordered the government to award $34,000 to the victim’s family. The case remained officially closed until December, and on Jan. 5 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it had sent documents requesting the extradition of Patterson from his home in Sunnyvale, Calif. If the U.S. government cooperates, they say, Patterson will be returned to Seoul to face a new trial — and possibly more severe charges.

The government’s move follows a flurry of renewed interest in the crime in popular culture. In September, a blockbuster film that dramatized the murder, The Case of the Itaewon Homicide, swept South Korea. That same month, a South Korean television crew discovered Patterson was living in Sunnyvale after the U.S. government failed to locate him following a 2005 request for judicial assistance from Seoul. “After we concluded that [the television crew’s] finding was true, we decided to reopen the case,” says Oh Se In, a Seoul city prosecutor acting as a spokesman for the case. Lee, the other defendant in the trial who has always maintained his innocence, says he welcomes the decision. “If the U.S. government hands Patterson over and the prosecution reinvestigates, I will actively cooperate,” he told Dong-A Ilbo, a Korean-language newspaper in Seoul, last month.

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For some South Koreans, it’s one step toward a victory against a series of alleged crimes by American servicemen and their relatives over the past 40 years — and the law that they say goes easy on them. “We’ve seen in this case that SOFA’s protection range is too broad,” says Park Kyung Soo, an activist at the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, a nonprofit organization in Seoul. “It restricts the right to continuous detention before prosecution, and whenever people protected by SOFA go to court, an American representative has to accompany them.” In the Burger King homicide case, activists also complained the treaty hindered the South Korean court’s ability to subpoena the children of U.S. servicemen to give crucial testimony that could help in proving the guilt or innocence of the suspects.

For others, resolving the case is a matter of national pride, one that arises in part from a stereotype among some South Koreans that foreign soldiers commit a disproportionate share of the nation’s crimes. “We don’t trust them. They come to our country and treat Koreans as below them,” says Yoon Jong Hyun, 46, a truck driver in the city of Yangju, north of Seoul. “They commit a lot of crimes because they know they can hide behind the treaty.”

Despite the government’s good relations with Washington, a large sector of South Korean society has had a long and rocky relationship with American influence, with skepticism many scholars attribute to decades of occupation by foreign powers last century. In 2002, protests erupted across the country after two American soldiers were acquitted by a U.S. military court for running over and killing two teenage girls north of Seoul in their armored vehicle; again, critics derided stipulations in the SOFA treaty that kept the soldiers from being tried in South Korean courts. In 2008, more heated demonstrations broke out in Seoul after the government allowed South Korea to receive certain U.S. beef imports that many were concerned might contain mad-cow disease. Protesters alleged the administration of President Lee Myung Bak was protecting its alliance with the U.S. at the expense of its own citizens’ health.

Still, others contend the SOFA treaty does not hinder investigations to the extent antimilitary activists and the South Korean media claim. “We’ve always had jurisdiction over these kinds of crimes when the victim is Korean,” says Oh, the prosecution’s spokesman. “We’ve only had a few restrictions on procedural matters, which is not a big deal.” Indeed, supporters point out that the terms of the treaty are far more favorable to South Korea than, for example, the terms of a similar treaty Japan signed with the U.S. in 1960. In that country, the U.S. military can hold suspected servicemen until a Japanese court indicts them, a stipulation that critics allege has handicapped investigations there.

Many think the government made a wise move in reopening the case, and that resolving the Itaewon Burger King murder will help heal old scars between American military bases and the South Korean residents living around them. But Park, the activist, asserts that a new trial will only be the first step in a struggle to revise the treaty that could take decades. “It’ll certainly loosen tensions, but only a little bit,” Park says. And without a conviction, many South Koreans will continue to harbor anger over what they believe was the great solvable murder that went unsolved.

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