A recent series of apparent suicides by three conscripts has amplified concerns over problems with South Korea’s troop management system.
A Navy sailor was found dead on his vessel Monday, a day after two Army privates were discovered hanged in their barracks in separate locations near the heavily fortified border with North Korea. The three servicemen, who were in their early 20s, had been placed on a list of soldiers requiring special attention due to worries over their mental conditions.
Their deaths came at a time when military authorities were engaged in soul-searching in the wake of a deadly shooting spree at a frontline unit in June. A 22-year-old Army sergeant, who was also on the special watch list, fired at his colleagues at a border outpost, killing five and wounding seven others. Bullying was found to be the motive behind the rampage that shocked the nation.
Military investigators need a thorough probe into the latest deaths of servicemen, especially the possibility of abuse by superiors and colleagues. One of the Army soldiers found hanged Sunday belonged to the same unit where the tragic shooting spree took place.
Harsh military practices purported to maintain discipline and a distorted culture at the barracks have long been under criticism here. Abused and bullied in these circumstances, some soldiers, especially those with mental health problems, become vulnerable to the risk of committing suicide or shooting their comrades.
All-out efforts should be made to stop this meaningless loss of soldiers. The recurrence of tragic incidents at barracks also weakens the military posture against possible provocations from the North.
The latest suicides should increase the sense of urgency in the military, which has been scrambling to work out measures to improve the system of conscripting and managing troops.
It may be difficult, or practically impossible, to prevent all mentally vulnerable people from joining the military as the bar for active duty has been lowered to cope with a reduction in the number of potential draftees. But it is all the more necessary under these conditions to conduct more effective and precise psychological tests to weed out those who are unfit for military service.
The Army last week announced a plan to establish an ad hoc committee this month to explore ways to reform the abusive culture at the barracks. It is appropriate for the committee to include not only military and government officials but civilian experts, veterans, active-duty soldiers and their parents. Recommendations to be made by the group by the end of the year should be put into practice in a prompt and thorough manner.
The military also needs to build a more detailed database on suicides and other incidents at the barracks to draw up more effective and specific preventive measures.