The nation is upset by the belatedly known details of a case in which an enlisted man was beaten to death after months of abuse by his senior colleagues. At the time of the death in April, the Army announced it as an isolated case of unpremeditated violence.
As details of the atrocities have come out, the case of Pfc. Yoon, identified only by his family name, is developing into a national issue, with public outrage mounting against the military authorities and politicians joining the uproar.
Yoon suffered horribly at the hands of his fellow soldiers. Yoon’s seniors, who beat him frequently, allegedly forced him to stay awake until late at night, had him apply ointment to his genitals and even forced him to lick their spit and food off the floor.
The suspects, all members of a medical unit of an infantry division, even gave Yoon intravenous fluid so that he could endure their physical abuses.
These are acts of torture, not the casual violence or abuse that we normally hear of in barracks or on campuses. It is beyond comprehension that there have been such consistent, organized assaults for months and Yoon’s commanders did not take any action to stop the inhumane acts.
Similarly incomprehensible is that the details of what Yoon suffered were not made public until a television news report and a civic group disclosed them, citing court records. It smacks of a cover-up.
The Yoon case prompted the Army to conduct a survey of all of its units across the country, which found 3,900 cases of abuses in April alone. A majority of the offenses were minor such as use of abusive language, but there were a significant number of violent acts, including beatings.
Such malpractices and mismanagement of soldiers who are vulnerable to mental problems cause fatal incidents in the barracks. Most recently, an enlisted man, apparently the victim of bullying by his fellow soldiers, killed five colleagues in a shooting spree in a frontline unit. The tragedy was followed by the successive suicides of two conscripts.
Lax punishment and the commander’s negligence are to blame for this widespread problem that threatens the lives of our sons and daughters in the barracks. Judging from the recent cases, abuses in barracks may well be called our military’s No. 1 enemy within.
In Yoon’s case, five of the six suspects were charged with manslaughter and the sixth with assault. In view of what they did, the military prosecution should pay heed to some experts’ view that it can charge the suspects with murder.
The Army also deserves criticism for the light disciplinary action it has taken. Originally, a total of 16 commanders, officers and noncommissioned officers received punishment, including the regiment commander. Only after the case became a big social issue did the Army relieve the division commander of his post and brought him to the disciplinary panel.
Defense Minister Han Min-koo blamed “a sense of complacency” among officers, who appear to have thought that abuses in the barracks had disappeared. The best way to get rid of the complacency is to mete out heavy punishment to those who are responsible, this time including the Army chief of staff.
Taking disciplinary action on those in lower ranks would not be as effective in reawakening military leaders and commanders to the importance of making the military a safer place for draftees.