I wonder if any of you have ever watched the television show “Locked Up Abroad”? The title says it all: it’s about people who, through a variety of circumstances, end up getting arrested overseas and sometimes imprisoned. We have a fair number of prison dramas in the United States, and I admit that Hollywood prison was the extent of my experience until I came to Korea as a Foreign Service Officer assigned to the American Citizens Services Unit.
So what’s it like to be arrested in Korea? What do people do to get arrested in Korea? What happens to them after they get arrested in Korea? These are all good questions. First and foremost, American citizens are subject to Korean law while residing in Korea. We find that many American citizens are arrested for possession or distribution of illegal substances, assault, and occasionally more serious crimes such as rape and murder. We also have U.S. citizens arrested for fraud, especially business or commercial fraud.
Generally, after an American citizen gets arrested in Korea, he/she will be taken to the local police station where they remain for up to 48 hours before the police decide to release them or press charges. If the police do no release the individual in that 48 hour time period, then the prisoner is entitled to request a visit from a consular officer from the Embassy. That’s where I come in. My job is to visit the prisoner and ascertain some vital information: is the prisoner being treated fairly within the Korean criminal justice system? Is he in good physical condition? Does she need any medication? Will he or she sign a Privacy Act waiver so we can inform family and friends what has happened?
Most of our visits go like this — I and one of my locally hired Korean colleagues drive to the police station or prison in question. Usually it is a large municipal building, with several police vans or cars parked outside. When we enter, there is usually a sparesly decorated, white-washed lobby, with a guard in a booth who checks our credentials and sends us to the investigator’s office where we will meet the American citizen. At that time, other prisoners may also be in the investigator’s office being questioned by police. We have the opportunity to talk to the American citizen, privately if requested, and find out whether they feel they are being treated fairly, whether they need any medications urgently, and whether they’d like us to contact family members and/or friends.
In Korea, we are fortunate that there is an effective legal system, highly professional police force, and relatively clean, well maintained prison facilities. Still, I can’t recommend putting yourself into a situation where you might end up in a Korean prison. The prisoners we meet are handcuffed, and although the cells are clean, they don’t have beds, and many wear coats to ward off a chill in the air.
After that initial visit, the prisoner will be returned to the holding cell, alone, often unable to communicate with any of the prisoners around them since very little English is spoken. After that, it’s up to the Korean legal system to press charges or not, hold a trial, convict or not convict, and ultimately sentence the prisoner if convicted.
But that process is probably best saved for another blog….For now, stay safe, follow Korean law, and stay out of prison!