A riot police squad in Wonju, Gangwon Province, was disbanded on Friday after its seniors were found to have physically and emotionally abused young conscripts.
The Gangwon Regional Police Agency said it broke up the 90-member unit, relocating 59 police officers to other areas. The other 31 members are victims of the abuse, and they will be transferred out after questioning, the agency said.
The decision came after arrest warrants were sought for four riot policemen and 11 others were booked Thursday for their alleged involvement in assault and abuse cases in the unit. Five commanding and senior officers were also arrested for neglect of duty.
Massive punishment seemed unavoidable for police troops involved in abuse cases across the country, with a flurry of complaints reported by junior officers.
Amid concerns growing over physical assault and other abuses among conscripted police officers, the National Police Agency launched a large-scale investigation over Wednesday and Thursday.
During the two-day interviews, 365 junior policemen, about 8 percent of the total 4,581 officers surveyed nationwide, said they have experienced beatings, bullying and sexual harassment in their barracks.
Following the results of further investigation, the police said they will punish strictly those involved in abuse cases and their commanding officers.
Considering that more than 10 older officers are usually involved in bullying one officer, observers said thousands of people, including those who have already been discharged, could be punished.
“I feel nervous as an older officer. If junior policemen report any case, I would be fired,” an officer in a Seoul combat unit said in an interview.
“I heard that no one is speaking out at a unit where chronic bullying and beatings continue to happen. The older officers don’t order anything to juniors and are careful not to make any mistakes,” said another officer.
Other officers complained about the ongoing investigation even though they said they understand the purpose.
“Beating is sometimes necessary to educate juniors. (Without it) it is like staying at school, not the military,” said an officer.
“Both older and junior officers are feeling stressed. I hope the investigation is completed as early as possible.”
To protect officers and encourage them to speak out, junior officers had been ordered to pack their belongings before participating in the interview.
They are being given a special holiday and will be sent to other barracks for safety should they report any abuse.
Among the 191 cases, including 116 in Seoul, reported on the first day of investigation, 69 people said they were physically assaulted, while 122 others said they suffered verbal or other kinds of abuse.
Some officers also complained about sexual harassment, and asked for counseling.
By Lee Ji-yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org)