The Army said Friday that it will conduct a further probe into fresh allegations that a private first class, who was beaten to death by his comrades, was also sexually molested.
In April, a 23-year-old Army private first class surnamed Yoon died after being hit in the chest by five of his colleagues at their barracks. The assault caused a piece of food to obstruct his airway, leading him to die of asphyxiation.
The military prosecution's probe also found that the victim, who moved last December to the Army's 28th Division in Yeoncheon, just south of the heavily fortified border with North Korea, had long suffered from frequent assaults and abusive treatment by his fellow soldiers.
"A day before the incident, some of the suspects applied ointment to his sexual organ to cause him sexual humiliation and physical pain, which constitutes sexual harassment," Lim Tae-hoon, the chief of the country's Center for Military Human Rights Korea, said in a press conference on Thursday.
Speaking of the claim, Army spokesman Choi Yong-han told a regular briefing on Friday that the suspects have said they "told Yoon to rub the ointment on the body part by himself after witnessing that he had a bruise there from an assault, while denying any intention to sexually molest him.
"After checking relevant facts further, the prosecution will review whether to apply additional charges to them," he added.
The five soldiers, including two sergeants and a staff sergeant, have been arrested on manslaughter charges. While the court ruling by a military court is due next Tuesday, the suspects have said the reason for their behavior was "to maintain tighter discipline."
A total of 16 officers at the unit also faced punishment, with the regiment chief being dismissed from the position and the head of the squadron being suspended for three months.
"The suspects should face murder charges, not manslaughter, as they had intensified their assaults knowing that Yoon may die due to such severe beatings," the rights center head said.
They often had Yoon stay awake until 3 a.m. and forced him to swallow a tube of toothpaste. They even poured water over his face while having him lie on the floor, and even ordered him to lick their spit off the ground, according to the authorities.
Extending apologies over the incident, the defense ministry's vice spokesman Wi Yong-seop said the government "also takes the case seriously and plans to come up with fundamental measures to root out bad practices, including physical assaults."
Yoon's case has sparked public ire over the military's management of the troops. In June, an Army sergeant who had been bullied by his colleagues went on a shooting rampage, killing five and wounding seven others.
All able-bodied South Korean men must carry out about two years of military service, as the country is still technically at war with the communist North since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. (Yonhap)