SEOUL -- U.S. troops will no longer carry guns during off-base patrols, following a highly publicized confrontation earlier this month in which South Korean civilians were handcuffed over an illegally parked car outside Osan Air Base.
U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said the decision to ban town patrols from carrying sidearms was made Friday evening and implemented at all USFK installations over the weekend. U.S. security forces and military police routinely patrol entertainment districts frequented by troops, usually at night.
The off-base patrols will continue, but the military has “determined that it is pertinent to make an immediate adjustment to off-base community patrols,” a USFK statement said. “We are continuing to review our procedures and evaluate the need for adjustments related to community patrols outside of our USFK installations ... we continue to work closely with and cooperate with the community, business leaders and Korean National Police in the ongoing investigation.”
Buschick could not immediately answer whether town patrol members will carry any weapons, or if there were concerns that the ban on carrying guns could leave them unprotected.
A Pyeongtaek police official, speaking on conition of anonymity, welcomed USFK's decision.
"People are sensitive about this because carrying guns isn't allowed in our country" with the exception of the police or military, he said.
Officials from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense would not comment on the decision.
However, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did comment. The official said South Korea requested that USFK ban the town patrols from carrying guns.
"Basically, it is at odds with our people's sentiment," the spokesperson said. "There's a risk of accidents as well."
When asked if the safety of off-base patrols would be affected if patrols did not carry guns, USFK said patrols have access to direct responders if needed. "For instance, our military patrols have contact back to the U.S. military installation and Korean law enforcement authorities when they cannot reasonably respond to a situation or if there is an emergency," a USFK-issued statement said. USFK commander Gen. James Thurman and 7th Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas issued apologies and five airmen were suspended from town patrol duties following the July 5 incident, which is being investigated by both the military and South Korean police. The airmen will remain suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
According to Osan, three South Korean men assaulted three Osan security forces personnel after the men were asked to move a car parked in the popular Sinjang shopping area outside the base because of force protection concerns.
The airmen restrained the men then called South Korean police for assistance, an Osan statement said.
Osan says two South Koreans were handcuffed, while South Korean authorities put the figure at three. The men were released to South Korean police, who later freed them without pressing charges.
Pyeongtaek police chief Park Sang Yung has called the handcuffing “inappropriate” and illegal. He said South Korean police do not handcuff civilians.
Footage of the incident was recorded by passersby and aired on South Korean television, and showed people in civilian clothing surrounding the security patrol and the airmen roughly handling two men on the ground. Osan’s statement said the crowd threatened the airmen’s safety.
The handcuffing has sparked anger in South Korea but has not led to large-scale protests, possibly because of the immediate American apologies.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.