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Society News 5. S. Korean Military Still Tainted by Human Rights Abuses, Suicides

clock03-29-2010, 12:42 AM
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By Kim Hyung-jin

UIJEONGBU, South Korea, March 29 (Yonhap) -- More than a year after her second son died by suicide in a military boot camp, Song Su-jin, a 49-year-old insurance saleswoman, still can hardly accept it.

She believes that her son was a victim of physical and mental abuses which are deep-rooted in the military.

"I terribly miss the times we lived together," Song said, tears welling in her eyes, in a recent interview near her house in Uijeongbu, a city north of Seoul. She preferred to be identified by an alias to protect her late son.

According to military investigators, Song's son, then a 21-year-old inductee, committed suicide by blowing up a hand grenade because he could no longer endure repeated verbal abuse by instructors during his five-week basic training.

"In his letter, he said he couldn't understand why instructors were so harsh toward him," Song said.“But still I don't believe he killed himself. He dyed his hair, liked wearing fashionable clothes and loved pop music. He had a lot of things to do.”

Despite its fame as one of the best trained and disciplined in the world, South Korea's 680,000-member military has been marred by a long history of human rights abuses of rank-and-files. Song's son surely fell victim to the system.

National defense is a top priority in South Korea, which faces constant threats from North Korea that is determined to arm itself with nuclear weapons. By law, all South Korean men must serve in the military for up to 28 months.

Military records show that 134 South Korean soldiers took their own lives last year in the face of harsh discipline such as beating and verbal abuse.

The military again came under public fire earlier this year when an Army captain was found to have had 192 trainees eat human feces as punishment for not flushing toilets.

The incident, coinciding with a string of suicides by enlisted servicemen, further tarnished the military's image and prompted calls for reform.

Defense Ministry officials insisted that the overall human rights conditions in the military have improved significantly in recent years but acknowledged that problems still exist.

According to ministry figures, the number of military deaths has gradually dwindled over the past few years, from 164 in 2001, 158 in 2002 and 150 in 2003 to 134 in 2004. Of these, 69 people took their own lives in 2001, 79 in 2002, 69 in 2003 and 66 in 2004.

Cases of physical violence and sexual harassment in military barracks also fell to 2,277 last year, from 2,507 in 2003 and 2,483 in 2002, the data showed.

Analysts project a different picture, however.

"The statistics may be a welcome sign, but human rights abuses in the military is still a serious problem,”said Lee Gye-su, a law professor at Kunkuk University in Seoul.

Lee cited other records showing that the number of soldiers who suffer from mental diseases or are kept in on-base detention centers without trial remains unchanged.

According to a Defense Ministry report, 1,299 soldiers were discharged from military hospitals in 2001 after receiving treatment for mental problems, compared with 1,110 in 2002, 1,170 in 2003 and 1,440 in 2004.

A separate ministry report also showed that the number of soldiers who served in military confinement facilities, called "yongchang," stood at 10,690 in 2000, 11,580 in 2001, 11,525 in 2002, 12,074 in 2003 and 11,921 in 2004. Soldiers who commit minor offenses can be temporarily detained for up to 15 days without trial.

“The suicide rate is lower than that of civilians in the same age group, but we have to realize that the suicide percentage in relation to the total casualties in the military is rising. Also, they killed themselves for single reason, which is hardship in their military lives,”said Lee, who participated in a 2003 government investigation of human rights of rank-and-file soldiers.

Several reservists interviewed weeks after completing their military service agree that various forms of physical and other types of abuse still exist in military camps.

“I was slapped and got kicked in the shin by my superiors many times whenever I got scratches on my truck. But I felt I was lucky, because I heard from my friends they were struck by steel pipes,”said a 24-year-old former sergeant who served as a truck driver in a frontline unit.

“Also, these days, higher-ranking soldiers have the tendency of harassing their juniors mentally and often lead them to make a mistake,”said the reservist, who identified himself only by his family name, Kim.

Another reservist, who also served in a frontline Army camp, said his unit put petition-collecting boxes in private locations such as toilets to receive anonymous reports on human rights abusers, but that did not work.

“Everyone knew that secrecy was not guaranteed at all,”he said, requesting anonymity.“I saw my seniors ransack the drawers of my colleagues and check their handwriting to find the anonymous whistle blower," he said.

Analysts proposes a range of new measures to reduce in-camp human rights violations.

“First of all, we have to change the conscription system, drastically, reducing the service period and assigning more people to alternative duties," said Han Hong-koo, a Korean history professor at SungKongHoe University in Seoul. "Cramming so many soldiers into poor facilities is the root cause of the problem."

Many draftees complain that they have to stop schooling or interrupt careers to serve in the military, while some use bribes, forge medical records or use other illicit methods to dodge conscription. Last year, more than 50 professional baseball players were punished for dodging military service in the country's single largest draft scandal.

Experts also suggest that the government establish a state human rights watchdog outside of the armed forces and legislate a law on the basic rights of rank-and-files.

“More important is the education of officers. So far, our military academy, rooted in the Japanese colonial system, has only focused on building hostilities towards North Korea, which we now have to embrace," said Pyo Myung-ryul, a former one-star Army general who served as chief military troop information and education officer in the late 1980s.

“The military can be easily reformed, as they obey the orders of higher-ups. So reforming a handful of top military brass would bring fruitful results," Pyo said.

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2005/03/29 09:08 KST
clock07-07-2012, 05:54 PM
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