Calls are mounting for a fundamental change in Korea’s closed, rigid military culture after a string of bullying and abuse cases at frontline barracks has resulted in suicide and even a shooting spree.
The military has been striving to ameliorate the culture through a series of measures including strengthening human rights education and counseling programs. But skepticism runs high over the anti-abuse efforts with critics arguing that the military should take more effective, tougher steps rather than trying to find another quick-fix solution.
Stressing that manpower should be the centerpiece of military capabilities, experts said the military should do whatever it takes to address the deepening antagonism among conscripts, particularly at border units where strictly hierarchical culture prevails.
Over more than a decade, the Army has been pushing to wipe out violence and human rights abuses. But its efforts have proven to be futile as abuse cases persist.
In January 2005, a captain forced 195 new recruits in an Army boot camp to eat excrement as punishment for failing to keep the toilets clean. Five months later, a private first class went on a shooting rampage, killing eight comrades.
In July 2011, a marine went on a shooting spree, killing four marines. In June this year, an Army draftee detonated a grenade and shot his rifle at his comrades, killing five soldiers. In the same month, a marine was found to have forced a new recruit to lick a toilet to punish him for not properly cleaning a latrine.
Observers said the military should institute an “ombudsman” program involving civilian monitoring staff to investigate abuse cases in the military on a regular basis. They argued that the military tends to conceal internal problems, often citing military security concerns.
Experts also pointed out that the military manpower agency should strengthen its screening process to prevent those unfit for active duty from entering the Army. But officials fear that a tougher screening process could lead to a shortage of troops given the future demographic changes triggered by the low birthrate.
Some others said that troops should be allowed to freely use the Internet and even smartphones to express their thoughts about how they have been treated in the military, despite concerns about the possible leak of military secrets.
Some also maintained that the military should consider changing the mandatory conscription system into a voluntary one as problems at barracks occur partly because many of the troops have unwillingly joined the armed services.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)