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Army to investigate ‘mystery deaths’

On an afternoon in February 1998, Army 1st Lt. Kim Hun was found dead inside an underground military outpost along the border with North Korea. A gunshot wound was found on the right side of his head and a 9mm Beretta pistol was near his body.

The South Korean military determined that the then-25-year-old Army officer had committed suicide. But questions and doubts have mushroomed that he may have been murdered because of no apparent motive for suicide and evidence of a physical fight inside the outpost.

Eight years later, the Supreme Court challenged the ministry’s decision, saying there was not enough evidence to determine Kim took his own life. Over the years, Kim’s father, a retired lieutenant general, demanded Kim’s death be treated as one related to military duty, not as a suicide case. The Ministry of National Defense had refused to heed the plea.

After a decade of legal battles and civil petitions, however, the Defense Ministry on Friday changed its stance and recognized Kim’s case as a death in the line of duty, raising hopes the Army might reinvestigate what happened to Kim 19 years ago.  

1st Lt. Kim Hun(right) and his father. Yonhap
1st Lt. Kim Hun(right) and his father. Yonhap

“We are sincerely hoping that our decision gives consolation to the victim’s family, who has suffered for a long period of time. We will do our utmost to find out the cause of those losing their lives for mysterious reasons,” the ministry said in a statement.

Including Kim’s case, five cases were recognized as deaths in the line of duty. Among them were Lim Yin-sik, who was found shot dead in 1969 when he served as a warrant officer at an Army division in Gangwon Province. The military determined that Lim committed suicide, but Lim’s wife questioned the result, saying he might have been killed for attempting to reveal wrongdoings in his unit.

Kim and Lim were among soldiers who lost their lives for an unknown reason while serving in the military. According to the Defense Ministry, there are about 600 cases of “mysterious deaths” in the military, and only half of them have been properly investigated.  

Most of the mysterious deaths have been classified as suicides by the Army, but surviving family members and human right activists have expressed doubt that the military might have reduced the scale of the investigation or even tried to cover up the cases.

“When the military investigates suicide cases, their probe only focuses on who pulled the trigger and who tied the rope. Our argument is that we need to find out why they did it,” said Ko Sang-man, a former investigator dealing with mysterious deaths in the Army.

Ko, who now serves as a human rights activist, asserted the military should overhaul the way it investigates suicide cases, saying military tribunals should grant investigation rights to civil courts unless the nation is at war.

While suicide is the most common cause of death among service members, finding out the reason behind the suicide has often proved difficult in the military, which is reluctant to reveal its inner workings to the public.

According to government statistics released by the Defense Ministry, since 2007 suicides constitute about two-thirds of military deaths. For example, among 81 soldiers who died in 2016, 54 took their own life.

Faced with mounting calls for the overhaul, the ministry on Friday launched an internal organization dedicated to investigating mysterious deaths in the military. The ad-hoc agency will operate until August next year.

“The military must play a proactive role in solving mysterious deaths in the military. In doing so, we are able to regain public trust and bring honor to the victims and their families,” Vice Defense Minister Seo Joo-seok said.

By Yeo Jun-suk (