American faces Seoul court over infamous unsolved murder

SEOUL–The son of a former US military contractor appeared before a South Korean court on Thursday, standing accused of committing one of the country’s most infamous murders almost two decades ago.

Arthur Patterson center an American charged with murdering a Seoul university student in 1997 is escorted by South Korean police officers upon his arrival at Incheon International airport

Arthur Patterson center an American charged with murdering a Seoul university student in 1997 is escorted by South Korean police officers upon his arrival at Incheon International airport

Arthur Patterson is charged with stabbing 22-year-old student Cho Jung-pil to death in Itaewon, a popular expat district in Seoul, in 1997. The killing, which saw Cho stabbed nine times in the bathroom of a Burger King restaurant, shocked the public in a country where random stranger violence is rare, and kicked up lingering public anger over crimes involving the US military.

In his first pretrial hearing, Patterson, garbed in prison attire and appearing nervous, repeated his earlier claim of innocence through his lawyer Oh Byeong-ju, reported local media.

Oh said Patterson had been framed by his Korean-American friend Edward Lee, who was also in the bathroom at the time of the killing, while hinting at his client’s intention to fight his case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, according to reports.

Asked by presiding judge Sim Gyu-hong if he understood proceedings, Patterson replied “very little” in English, according to reports.

The upcoming trial marks the culmination of a lengthy legal saga that has both fascinated the public for its intrigue and caused outrage for its demonstration of prosecutorial incompetence. Prosecutors initially charged Lee with the murder, instead holding the military dependent responsible for possession of a deadly weapon and destruction of evidence. The Supreme Court, however, declared Lee innocent by overturning his murder conviction in 1998. With Patterson a suspect once again, the authorities vowed to reinvestigate. However, Patterson left South Korea in 1999 when the prosecution failed to renew a travel ban against him. He was eventually charged with murder in 2010, months after the release of a film about the case, and extradited last month.

“I think the public felt the police and prosecutors were largely to blame for bungling the case,” Kang Ju-won, a lawyer and legal pundit, told Asia Times. “More than anything, the public could not believe a murder suspect could get away from under their nose so easily. Many people seem to feel the extradition was long overdue. The general sentiment is that the authorities sat idly by for too long.”

The case also exposed longstanding grievances among some South Koreans who perceive US soldiers to commit crimes regularly and without consequence. As a military dependent, Patterson was subject to the status of forces agreement governing crimes by US personnel. While US military investigators quickly pointed to Patterson as the key suspect, unlike the South Korean investigators who ultimately handled the case, some local activists blamed the botched investigation on local law enforcement’s inability to question other military dependents about the killing.

David Straub, who worked at the US embassy in Seoul at the end of the 90s and is the author of “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea,” said that South Koreans have conflicted feelings about the US presence in their country — despite opinion polls showing overwhelming support for their military alliance.

“On the other hand, they feel that the United States divided Korea in the first place — which it did, but of course not with the intention of making that division permanent — and because of that they are left with no option but to have American forces in their country, even if they would prefer not to have to rely on foreign forces,” he said.

He added many South Koreans falsely believe US authorities shield their soldiers from accountability.

“So Koreans’ attitudes toward US forces in their country are very complicated, with feelings simultaneously of appreciation, shame, and resentment,” he said.

Patterson’s trial is expected to last up to six months. The next pretrial hearing takes place on Oct. 22.

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.

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