SEOUL — Six South Korean soldiers have been accused of killing one of their fellow conscripts. Yoon Seung-joo, 20, died earlier this year after being force-fed and beaten. Abuse within South Korea’s military ranks has long been a problem. A recent survey of soldiers revealed about 4,000 allegations of violence that went unreported.
It’s a time that almost all South Korean men dread. The moment when they begin their mandatory service in their country’s armed forces.
Kim Tae-Haw joined the ranks of Korea’s riot police when he began his conscription ten years ago. "I didn’t want to go to the hardcore army, and with something like riot police you mostly work in police departments which are in cities, so you don’t have to live in the mountains. There are also more vacations."
But Kim, now 29, soon found out that duty in South Korea’s riot police was anything but a vacation. Kim tells me about his first experience, which happened soon after starting his service. "I remember one senior got a BB gun with some gas ... he aimed it at my face, shot me and I started bleeding. I was upset then, I just wanted to go home."
But he couldn’t go home. For the next two years, Kim says he and other conscripts were constantly beaten, tortured and humiliated by their senior officers. Kim has a theory as to why it happens.
A vicious circle
"No one wants to join the army but they are forced to. So they get stressed. Juniors are good targets to take this stress out on, because when they were juniors they got the same abuse," he says. "When they become senior officers then, they think that because everyone does this there's no point in feeling guilty. I think this kind of isolated, stressful situations make people really crazy."
Kim says the only person he confided in about the abuse was his father, who more or less told him just deal with it.
Ahn Mi-ja’s son, Yoon Seong-joo, didn’t tell anyone about the violence he was suffering inside his army barracks. I met her outside the military courthouse where her son’s fellow soldiers were standing trial for causing his death. "I didn’t know what was going on, so when they told me that my son had died, I couldn't believe it. It wasn’t until I saw the bruises on his body that I found out what was going on."
The details of her son’s abuse were only made public 3 months after his death, thanks to an investigation by the Military Human Rights Center.
A protocol overhaul
Lim Tae-hoon, the group’s director, says the violence will continue unless the system is changed. "The problem is that the punishments aren’t severe enough. Soldiers accused of violence should be tried in civilian courts, and the military’s courts and prisons should be abolished."
Some South Korean media reports say that some abused soldiers try to escape the cycle of military violence by taking their own lives or the lives of their abusive senior soldiers. The latest of several revenge killings occurred in June when a sergeant went on a shooting spree, killing five of his comrades. He was allegedly a victim of bullying.
Kim says he knows the feeling. "I was kind of getting crazy. There was no way to protect myself. I thought that if I really can't endure it anymore, I'll have to kill him."
Kim says not all of his memories of his time spent in South Korea's riot police are negative. But it’s not an experience he’d want anyone else to go through. "I do not want my son to go in the army, even though I don’t have one yet."
He adds that no matter how many improvements are made for the lives of conscripts, some things might never change.