South Korea's Army chief offered to resign Tuesday over the death of a conscript who allegedly suffered physical, sexual and mental abuse by his comrades, the defense ministry said Tuesday.
The 23-year-old Army private first class died in April after allegedly being hit in the chest by his senior colleagues at their barracks in Yeoncheon, just south of the inter-Korean border.
An initial investigation found that the deceased recruit had suffered severe physical abuse as well as sexual harassment for about a month after joining the 28th Infantry Division in March.
Bruises from numerous beatings were found all over his body.
In addition, allegations have been raised that the military tried to cover up the incident.
"I feel very sorry for causing great concern to the people due to a series of recent incidents in the Army, including the soldier's death," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Kwon Oh-sung was quoted as saying by defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok.
"I feel heavy responsibility for the situation, and offer to resign for the nation and the military. I hope all Army personnel understand my commitment to the necessity of addressing the military's chronic problems and to putting (a new code of conduct) into practice," Kwon said.
He expressed his intention to step down to Defense Minister Han Min-koo, and the offer was conveyed to the presidential office, according to Kim. Kwon took office in September last year.
It was not immediately known whether President Park Geun-hye accepted the offer, but she had severly chastised the military just hours earlier for allowing such a tragedy to occur in the first place. The chief executive stressed that all those involved must take responsibility, including those that stood by and allowed the abuse to go on.
Yoon's death, which was brought to light belatedly in a media report, is the latest in a series of incidents that have laid bare the chronic problem of bullying in barracks and rigid military culture.
In June, an Army sergeant who had been bullied by his comrades went on a shooting spree at a border outpost on the east coast, killing five soldiers and wounding seven others.
All able-bodied South Korean men are subject to compulsory military service for about two years in a country facing North Korea across the heavily fortified border.
Political watchers, meanwhile, said that the decision by the Army chief to step down comes in the context of the incident generating negative publicity that has the potential to distract attention from President Park's drive to boost the economy.
"It is likely that quick and decisive action has been taken so the government can put the matter behind it and deflect the opposition's attacks," a political pundit said.
Reflecting this, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy called Kwon's resignation a ploy to deflect blame from incumbent national security advisor Kim Kwan-jin, who was defense minister at the time of the recruit's death.
"It is a pity that the presidential office is not taking responsibility for the incident," said party spokesman Park Beom-kye.
The ruling Saenuri Party said the Army chief's resignation shows that the government is serious about dealing with the incident in a firm manner. (Yonhap)