The Yangju highway incident (Korean: 미군 장갑차에 의한 여중생 압사 사건) also known as the Yangju training accident or Highway 56 Accident, occurred on June 13, 2002 in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. A United States Army armored vehicle returning to base in Uijeongbu on a public road after training maneuvers in the countryside struck and killed two 14-year-old Korean girls, Shin Hyo-sun (신효순) and Shim Mi-seon (심미선).
The deaths occurred during the widespread excitement surrounding the 2002 FIFA World Cup (May 31 to June 30) but later became a source of strong Anti-American sentiment after false and misleading media reports regarding the attitude and behaviour of the US Army men following the incident. The US soldiers involved were found not guilty of negligent homicide in the court martial, further inflaming Korean passions. The memory of the two schoolgirls is commemorated annually in North Korea.
A US military convoy subordinate to the US Army's 8th Army, 2nd Infantry Division set out to undertake a training exercise at a range approximately 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of metropolitan Seoul.. As the convoy passed along a narrow country road near Yangju City, Gyeonggi Province, one of the convoy's armored vehicles, weighing approximately 57 tons, struck and killed two 14 year old Korean girls, Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, as they walked along the side of the roadway on their way to a birthday party.
On July 5, 2002, as a result of this incident, and in accordance with the US-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which stipulates that US military personnel fall under the jurisdiction of US military courts should they commit crimes while performing official duties, both the driver of the vehicle, Sergeant Mark Walker, and the vehicle’s commander, Sergeant Fernando Nino, were charged with "negligent homicide” under the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for "negligently failing to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle."
Seeking to prosecute the two soldiers in civilian courts under Korean law, however, on July 10, the South Korean Justice Ministry requested that the USFK command transfer jurisdiction in this case to the Korean legal system. While the SOFA stipulates that US military personnel performing official duties fall under the jurisdiction of US military courts, jurisdiction can be transferred to host countries at the discretion of the US military.
Citing concerns about setting a precedent in terms of allowing civilian proceedings against US military personnel, then Judge Advocate of the USFK, Colonel Kent Myers declined to do so, noting that the US Army had waived jurisdiction only once before in a case in which the act committed was intentional and not accidental. In a statement issued by the USFK, Col. Myers noted that Walker and Nino were clearly performing assigned duties in an official capacity and therefore subject to the UCMJ under the US-ROK SOFA.
Although they refused the request of the Korean Justice Ministry, US officials did, however, invite more than 30 media representatives, representatives from the South Korean Justice Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and from Korean Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to observe the trials. In addition, additional rooms with closed circuit television (CCTV) coverage were provided to accommodate the increased level of interest. Moreover, families of the victims were invited to attend and, to protect their privacy, were offered the use of a separate CCTV-equipped room staffed with an interpreter and military lawyer to explain the processes involved. In addition to these actions, public statements made by US officials stressed the fair and impartial nature of the US military legal process.
During the proceedings, lawyers for Sgt. Nino contended that he attempted to alert Sgt. Walker to the presence of the two girls on the periphery of the road. Reports differ as to whether Sgt. Walker did not hear the order due to a defective communications device or because he had altered the frequency of his radio in order to communicate with others in the convoy.
Sergeants Nino and Walker were subsequently found not guilty of "negligent homicide" in verdicts issued independently by two separate panels on Wednesday, November 20 and Friday, November 22, 2002. While demonstrators questioned the legitimacy and objectivity of the US military court and its verdict, the South Korean Justice Ministry voiced dissatisfaction with the verdict, but respect for the process as employed.
Full apologies were issued by US civilian and military officials at various levels of authority immediately after the incident and repeated throughout the course of the legal proceedings. In addition, visits were made to the families of the two victims, and compensation was promised. US President George W. Bush also phoned then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and expressed his regret over the deaths of the two Korean girls.
However, the acquittal of the two servicemen sparked anti-American demonstrations in various locations, termed "the biggest anti-American protests the country has seen in recent years" by a BBC report covering the December 2002 visit of then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to South Korea. The same report also suggested that presidential elections in South Korea, set to take place that same December, may have focused attention on the issue as a larger referendum on the US-ROK relationship, and thus exacerbated tensions. In addition to anger, sadness, and outrage at the death of the two girls, this move sparked protests in several locations as South Koreans expressed a desire for greater control over foreign forces stationed in Korea and urged that the SOFA be revised accordingly.
In addition to a series of large demonstrations at US bases and a rally attended by more than 50,000 Koreans in Seoul during the second week of December, attacks, including fire bombings, were launched at Yongsan Garrison and both the Korean and American personnel responsible for guarding US military installations in Korea. In one incident in December 2002, an unarmed US soldier, Army Lieutenant Colonel Steven A. Boylan, was attacked by three South Korean men wielding a knife outside the Garrison. Lt. Col. Boylan suffered only minor injuries.
In the months following the incident, both the US military and Korean authorities took actions to attempt to address the circumstances seen as having led to the deaths of the two girls. As of August 2002, the US Army banned all armored vehicles of the type involved in the June 13th accident from civilian roads. In addition, the Army announced more than 20 additional measures to improve safety during training exercises, including improvements to the notification system used to communicate with community leaders about upcoming training exercises, the installation of additional mirrors on US Army vehicles to improve driver visibility, and the retrofitting of additional intercom systems on US military vehicles to allow for direct communication between drivers and vehicle commanders.
Officials from Gyeonggi Province also took actions to address another issue seen to have contributed to the accident, inadequate transportation infrastructure. Reports indicated that one factor that may have contributed to the deaths of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, was the width and design of the roads in the area near their home village. Not only are roads in the area narrow, they do not always have space allocated along their periphery for pedestrians to use as walkways. Some have posited that this design contributes to the number of traffic accidents in Korea in general. Given that the armored vehicles traveling in the convoy on June 13 are wider than both a typical passenger vehicle and than the lanes marked on most roads, and that they the two girls were struck on an uphill S-curve, some reports posited that the design of the road where the accident occurred, and the width of the vehicles, the lanes on the road, and the road itself may have exacerbated the dangers already inherent when military vehicles operate within a civilian environment.
As such, improvements were made to the road where the incident took place as part of a $94 million dollar plan to improve more than 100 miles (160 km) of roads throughout the province. A major focal point of the project was the completion of improvements to roads used by the 2nd Infantry Division. Officials focused on widening, straightening, and smoothing the roads, while also adding footpaths. Begun in December 2002, reports suggest the project was 85 percent complete as of February 2004 and set to be concluded by April 2004. While the South Korean national government spent almost $1 million dollars to acquire the land necessary to widen several stretches of road, in some cases by 2–3 feet, the cost of construction fell upon Gyeonggi Province.