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Abuse at barracks cause of escalating concern in Korea

Defense minister orders full-scale inspection of all military units


Although his son will not join the military for another 10 years, Moon Young-sook is already apprehensive that his boy could suffer the “appalling” human rights abuses said to be widespread there.

“I feel more worried than before as it is said that such abuses are still taking place in many units, not in just a few. When we heard of such horrible news reports, we then think of whether we should really have to send our children there,” Moon told The Korea Herald.

“How can we willingly send our sons there when these cases of mistreatment continue? What I believe should change is that more systematic psychological counseling ― not by the military but by other non-military organizations ― should be offered to soldiers.”

Such worries by parents, who have already sent or will send their sons to fulfill their mandatory military service of up to 24 months, have been amplified with a recent spate of abuse cases that have given rise to suicides and even a shooting spree.

“When I heard of the shooting rampage at a Marine unit, I felt brokenhearted as my son is also in the military,” said Oh Eun-ju, whose son is a private first class serving at an Army unit in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province.

“The incident shows that the perception that soldiers should take (such abuses) for granted appears to continue in the military.”

Last week, a Marine corporal went on a shooting rampage at a barrack of the Marine Second Division on Ganghwa Island off the west coast, killing four soldiers. During an investigation, he indicated that bullying led to the shooting.

A private first class who was arrested on charges of complicity in the shootings also stated that he had suffered abuse from his seniors. The soldier, surnamed Jeong, stated that his seniors set his Bible on fire with a lighter, saying that a sergeant is in the same status as God.

Only one day before the rampage, a private first class at the same Marine division killed himself while on vacation in his hometown in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province. His bereaved family argues that harassment at his unit was the primary reason why he took his life.

The shootings came some six years after a corporal at an Army frontline unit in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, went on a shooting spree, killing eight soldiers. Thus, critics argue that the military has not made sufficient efforts to remove abusive practices.

Human rights activists argue that the military should draw up measures to enable abuse victims to speak out about their suffering resulting from molestation by their seniors.

“The military appears to have a strong tendency to cover things up when such an incident occurs,” said Lim Tae-hoon, chief of the Center for Military Human Rights.

“The military should set up an inspection team including civilians to verify all such cases. There should also be a monitoring system to check if anybody is suffering abuses. What really matters is that we should allow soldiers to freely talk about what they suffered rather than keeping them in such a closed place.”

Kim Wan-il, professor of counseling psychology at Sangji University, said that there should be more civilian counselors available to enlisted soldiers as they feel more comfortable when talking with civilian psychologists than with military ones.

“There are currently one or two civilian psychologists at division-level units. But there should be more of them operating at regiment or battalion-level units so that soldiers can easily ask for psychological help,” he said.

“Most of them appear to be reluctant to speak with military counselors as they often end up hearing that they are just mentally weak. But to civilian counselors, they could open up their mind and share what they are suffering from. Just knowing that someone understands them could be very helpful in preventing extreme cases of suicides and shooting sprees.”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Saturday issued an emergency directive to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to inspect all military units to discover any cases of bullying.

All military commanders are to report their inspection results to their headquarters by the end of August, officials said. Based on the results, the ministry plans to hold a debate on how to enhance the military culture at the military headquarters in South Chungcheong Province, in September.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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