Suicides, beatings and sexual assaults among soldiers have brought the South Korean military under fire. Incidents of violence that threaten the lives of soldiers have tripled over the past four years and the Ministry of Defense has now ordered a committee to investigate a wave of recent soldier deaths and abuse claims.
Army culture has been a long standing issue in Korean society, but the spate of incidents over the past few months have drawn more attention to violence and mental health issues in the ranks. Previous attempts by the military to investigate wrongdoings and to reform have been unsuccessful, and now there are calls for more to be done to improve the way conscripts are treated.
Demand for change has grown louder after a soldier was beaten to death by six senior comrades following prolonged abuse, which included sexual assault. Pictures of his heavily bruised body and revelations that he was given intravenous fluids so the beatings could continue emerged this week.
Critics argue that human rights are disregarded in the South Korean military and that the army is not dealing with the issue.
“Commanders regard their soldiers as disposable goods or their private possessions and treat them like their own servants. They tend to think that a soldiers’ life, health, and human rights are not important,” says Cheong Wooksik, director of Peace Network. “All militaries are closed but the Korean military is even more closed. Therefore, soldiers don’t talk about their problems to the outer world or call for help, instead they just try to deal with it by themselves and fail. Also, the people who committed these crimes do not get punished.”
Army Chief of Staff Kwon Oh-seong resigned and the Defense Minister claims he recognizes the need to change and will oversee the committee charged with investigating barracks culture.
“If the military fails to shed old practices while sticking to its closed organization, it will not be able to come up with appropriate solutions and will end up repeating the same mistakes,” says Defense Minister Han Min-koo. “In order to resolve the problems from the standpoint of the people and parents, we set up the committee in cooperation with the government and the civic society.” The committee will also include civilian participants.
However analysts believe that the military needs more oversight and should not be trusted to solve the problems it has from within.
“Democratic control of the military is the very basis of democracy. However, the Korean military is a special group which stays out of this democratic control,” says Peace Korea’s Cheong. “Therefore, we should not let the Korean military reform themselves but instead the private sector and citizens should lead this innovation. It is very important at this moment,” he added. President Park Geun-hye has so far delegated responsibility for army reform to the Ministry of Defense.
Other recent incidents that have drawn attention to this issue include a soldier who killed five of his unit in June and two soldiers who committed suicide in early July. Both of them were reported to be having difficulties adapting to military life. The cases also extend to violence against civilians, with two officers being accused on Thursday of sexually assaulting a civilian woman and then attacking her husband.
The South Korean military already has a checkered history in terms of physical, mental and sexual abuse cases. Three homicidal incidents were reported between 2005 and 2011, including a soldier who killed four marines on Ganghwa Island. A comprehensive study in 2007 found over 15 percent of conscripts had experienced sexual violence while serving in the army. High ranking soldiers were found to make up seven out of ten perpetrators and over half had been victims at lower rank before they themselves committed acts of abuse. So-called hazing is also common place, such as one unit in which officers forced new recruits to eat human excrement in 2005.
Alongside bullying and abuse cases, allegations of privileged youths either being posted in easier assignments or avoiding military service altogether is undermining public confidence in the military conscription system. Lawmakers, judges and prosecutors have been accused of finding loopholes to avoid military service themselves or help their sons do the same. Koreans use the phrase ‘few young men in Gangnam go to hyeon-yeok,’ meaning that those from richer backgrounds can easily find a way out of fulfilling their mandated duty. Suggesting your children move abroad before the age of 30 to avoid military service is now also seen as popular and such cases have doubled between 2007 and 2012. Those that manage to find a way out of military service are colloquially referred to as ‘sons of god.’
Celebrities have also been accused of skipping the usual rigors of duty by signing up as ‘entertainment soldiers’ or by registering in army sports teams. Three entertainment soldiers were spotted at a massage parlor in the early hours of one morning last year, causing outrage from netizens. Three national team ice hockey players, including the rumored boyfriend of Kim Yuna, were also discovered to have attempted to cover up a trip to a massage parlor and a car crash during an unauthorized night out.
However the situation for those who request special dispensation from mandatory service due opposition to the military is bleak. South Korea accounts for 93.5 percent of those imprisoned around the world for conscientious objection, prompting Amnesty International to bring up the issue in a personal letter to Park Geun-hye after her first year in office.
South Korea is not the only country facing up to issues of violence and abuse in the military. The number of complaints from British soldiers about bullying, harassment and discrimination rose sharply last year and the U.S army has faced a number of murder-suicides and sexual harassment cases in recent years.