Locked Up in the ROK

Austere http://www.flickr.com/photos/50028071@N02/6368545233I 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!


3 responses to “Locked Up in the ROK

  1. Ah, the life of an American criminal in Korea.

    I was “arrested” for assault with a weapon after a very drunken Korean-American assaulted my then pregnant Korean wife.

    Having lived in Korea for several years, I knew the golden rule of “don’t hit a Korean.”

    However, one night at a restaurant, a very drunk Korean American approached our party as we were exiting the restaurant. He struck up a conversation with me… “where are you from, etc.”.

    This guy was from Chicago and he was telling me how poorly he was treated in public school in the USA, so he decided to come here and teach English. “Great”, I thought, “a Kyopo with a chip on his shoulder.

    At the same time, my wife and her two girlfriends were chatting a few feet away. One of the women said something in Korean that set this guy off. He started yelling and screaming at the women in Korean and English. Lots of bad words flying.

    I told the girls to get the hell out and put myself between him and them, all the while trying to calm him down.

    Next thing I know, he rushed the women, pushed my pregnant wife down and I crushed a 500cc mug on his skull. Thankfully, the broken mug connected with his skull and then my left hand (I’ll tell you why it was a good thing, in a moment).

    Blood was skirting out of my hand, the Korean American was whining about having to teach the next day with a cut on his face and the police showed up in full force.

    They took me to the local hospital where I got stitched up and then we were all off to the local police station (except for the gyopo).

    At the police office, I demanded a Breathalyzer test to show my sobriety. Once the restaurant closed, the owner and a couple staff came and gave their accounts of what happened.

    I gave my statement through my own interpreter and we all waited for the gyopo to show up. He never came.

    I was asked if I wanted to contact my embassy and I declined. I was then fingerprinted and sent home with my wife.

    Flash forward two months and I got a letter with a court date. I was expecting as much. I mean, you can’t bash a guy’s skull and not expect some punishment.

    Having worked in the court system stateside for 12 years, I wasn’t worried. I knew the drill: dress up, be polite, and speak when spoken to.

    I was provided a free attorney who I met right before the bench trial (trial by judge). He didn’t offer any advice except to say that I should appear apologetic.

    At the courthouse, the Korean government supplied a competent translator.

    The judge read the charges and asked for my statement. I recounted the events and said that I wish I wouldn’t have hit the guy with a glass mug.

    Then the Korean American got up and rambled endlessly for what seemed like forever. The transcript reads like something out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, complete with conspiracies and tales of being treated poorly back in the states when he was a kid.

    The judge had to yell at the guy to make him shut up.

    The judge sentenced me to two years suspended.

    Here’s the good part: the judge sentenced the Korean American to two years suspended because I suffered a wound during the altercation.

    6 months later, my family visa was up for renewal. Immigration reviewed the case and given the fact that my wife was about to pop out our kid, they told me I would have to apply for a temporary visa back in Atlanta at the Korean consulate and then come back and re-apply for my family visa at immigration.

    I took a vacation and headed to the Hilton in downtown Atlanta. It was a nice vacation. People holding doors open for each other, saying sorry for when they accidentally bumped into me and just being nice. Good food….

    4 years have passed and I’m still happily living in Korea.

    The Korean American is serving a five year prison term for assaulting a Canadian couple in the local McDonald’s. Perhaps he called you when they picked him up. If he keeps in touch with you, give him my regards.

    • Thanks for your story! It’s really lucky that nothing worse happened to your wife, or the other guy. We hear all too often of situations that start similarly to yours but result in much more tragic endings. Your golden rule of “don’t hit a Korean” is a good one, and we would even expand that to “don’t hit anyone.” Don’t forget, the Embassy can help you file a police report or provide you with resources to hire a lawyer if you think you need some additional help. We hope everyone stays safe out there.

  2. Hey, thanks for publishing my story.

    Yes, I definitely agree that you should never use violence against another person here or in any country unless you or, in my case, your family is in danger.

    I admit that using a mug to hit the guy was a bad decision, but when adrenaline is pumping and there is an emergency, the quickest actions are not often the best. I can’t excuse my behavior though. It was wrong.

    In hind sight, I should have escorted my wife and her friends out of the restaurant ASAP.

    I was lucky to have a network of Koreans to help me through the process. Had I been a single male in the same situation, there is little doubt that I would’ve been locked up and deported.

    The one lesson I learned from the altercation is to be very careful who I talk with while abroad.

    Living in a foreign country seems to make us (Americans) more open to chatting with random strangers. Now I use this rule: if this person approached me on the street of my hometown, what would I do?

    Had the same situation occurred in New York or North Carolina, I would’ve shrugged the guy off as a weirdo.

    Why do we let our guard down here? One reason is that those of us isolated from westerners for a long period of time start to crave interaction from people from our home country. It’s normal. However, it’s best to meet people from home at a church, a language gathering, a sports event or some other arena that brings normal folks together.

    Avoid the random stranger that strikes up a conversation in a restaurant.

    By the way, what happened to me, happened miles and miles from a military base. The Korean-American in question was not related in any way with the military.

    The military gets a bad rap in Korea these days and I just want to show my support for the U.S. Armed Forces. In a decade abroad, I’ve never had a problem with a soldier in Korea.

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