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[Newsmaker] Fighting dirty? Army bans bathing as anti-COVID-19 measure for recruits

Conscripted soldiers couldn’t brush teeth or shower in early days of mandatory service

People stand in line to receive coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic in front of Seoul Station on April 7, 2021. (Yonhap)
People stand in line to receive coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic in front of Seoul Station on April 7, 2021. (Yonhap)
The South Korean Army deprived recruits of basic hygiene as part of its anti-COVID-19 measures, a civic group revealed, criticizing the military for neglecting soldiers’ basic rights.

The Center for Military Human Rights Korea said in a statement Monday that the Korea Army Training Center was too strict in enforcing its COVID-19 prevention measures for recruits, even barring access to basic hygiene options during their weekslong training period.

According to the nonprofit human rights advocacy group, recruits were prohibited from washing or brushing their teeth for their first three days at the training center. Using the restroom was allowed only during designated hours, it said, depriving soldiers of the right to maintain personal hygiene under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 rules.

Incoming soldiers enter quarantine once they enter the boot camp on a Monday and undergo a PCR test the next day. Until the test results come in on the Wednesday, the soldiers are barred from the shower booths and can’t even brush their teeth or wash their faces.

If the PCR test is negative, the soldiers are allowed to brush their teeth and wash their faces, but showering remains off limits until they get the results of a second PCR test a week later. Some soldiers had to wait 10 days to have their first showers.

The group said it received reports that soldiers had to wear KF94 face masks at all times, even while sleeping, and had to reserve time slots to use the bathrooms while at the training center.

They were only allowed to use the bathroom three times a day, and even then they were only given four minutes to brush their teeth, wash their faces, and clean their spoons and food trays.

“The Korea Army Training Center did not think of alternative solutions and took the easy path of merely controlling the use of bathrooms and shower booths,” said Lim Tae-hoon, the director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, in a statement Monday.

“The center seems to have paid little attention to the substandard living conditions of trainees. It is questionable how long this excessive control mechanism can be maintained when it is unknown how long this virus outbreak will last.”

The advocacy group said it has received reports that some soldiers urinated on themselves because they couldn’t access toilets when needed. Some decided to eat less food and drink less water so they wouldn’t have to use the restroom as often.

“The Army should comprehensively review its virus rules on trainees and prepare new measures to allow trainees to undergo training while maintaining basic hygiene,” the center argued.

The Army acknowledged the findings of the human rights organization but called the measures “unavoidable” to prevent outbreaks at the country’s “largest training facility for new soldiers.”

By law, all male South Korean citizens between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to perform military service for up to 21 months depending on the military branch. The Korea Army Training Center, in charge of running boot camps and other training services for the Army, has trained more than 9 million soldiers since 1951.

The Army training center provided basic training for 120,000 enlistees, or 47 percent of all Army soldiers, last year. Considering that conscription and training continued under COVID-19, the findings hint that likely thousands of soldiers have been maltreated since the pandemic started.

The Army press office said in a statement that its antivirus rules have resulted in no reported cases of the virus spreading among trainees at the center. The center has so far reported 27 COVID-19 cases from incoming trainees since the pandemic started last year.

“The Army is making improvements on a number of reported inconveniences by carefully examining difficult situations of some units, including the training center,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-gyu said in a press briefing Tuesday.

“The reports on the training center are suspected to be from late last year, and we have confirmed that there are improvements being made since then.”

The press officer said showers were now allowed for trainees starting on their third day at the center. The Army is at the moment collecting opinions and carrying out further assessments for a full review of the situation, he added.

The Center for Military Human Rights Korea said Tuesday that it will receive additional reports from soldiers to determine whether the training center has improved conditions.

Yet the center said the military still cannot be absolved of blame for neglecting the basic human rights of enlisted soldiers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most effective way of stopping the spread of COVID-19 is locking down and confining people from doing anything, but no government agency has made that gesture because a nation cannot limitlessly invade people’s basic rights for virus reasons,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.

“The country is responsible for actively contemplating measures that can achieve virus control goals while ensuring basic living for its people.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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