The Korea Herald


Navy suicide fuels calls for civilian oversight of military

By Choi Si-young

Published : Sept. 8, 2021 - 17:40

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A South Korean destroyer. (South Korea's Navy) A South Korean destroyer. (South Korea's Navy)
Calls are growing for increased civilian oversight of the military after a recent Navy suicide, with a military human rights group saying an independent commissioner is needed to look into recurring rights violations in the military.

The Center for Military Human Rights Korea, an advocacy group, said Tuesday a seaman took his life after he had been bullied by soldiers senior to him, and accused the Navy of having done little to punish his abusers.

The latest allegation comes as the military is still prosecuting those responsible for the suicide of an Air Force master sergeant in late May. Her family claims her superiors sexually assaulted her and cover-ups led to the death.

The sex crime prompted the military to hand over civilian authority power to investigate military sex crimes. The military courts were reduced to hear the first trials only. Civilian courts will hear all appeals, and they could hold first trials too, if they involve sex crimes.

Calls for transparency in military crimes have facilitated the overhaul.

“The ability of self-discipline to bring that transparency is clearly waning and we need a better check,” said Kim Hyung-nam, director at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, urging the military to appoint an independent human rights commissioner.

Lawmakers have proposed bills establishing such an authority to oversee rights abuses within the military. But they have yet to gain the momentum needed for passage through the National Assembly, despite debate over the issue for the past seven years.

The military has expressed concerns, saying an outside rights expert could compromise military security.

“The commissioner would have too much power,” the Ministry of National Defense said, noting the bills would give the commissioner the authority to look into military secrets. Letting an outsider in and out of bases whenever he or she feels appropriate could lower discipline on the inside, the ministry added.

Lee Ji-hun, a former military prosecutor who worked for the Defense Ministry, said an outside arbiter would rather prevent waning discipline by offering the military a fresh angle without bias.

“Chaos erupts once the military finds itself dealing with crimes as big as the recent scandal. Who is better than an outside voice to tell the military what it could do right when it sees its judgment affected and impaired?” Lee said, noting the outside expert could help both the military and victims to start the healing process.

And the outside commissioner would not be overreaching because the defense minister could deny such access to military secrets if that is deemed necessary, according to Lee, who added there is always room to work out details on instances where access is granted without harming security.

But the military is not expected to give away power to civilian authority without a fight, as shown in the recent friction with a civilian-led panel in charge of reform that made changes to the military justice system.

Some members of the panel have accused the military of bypassing them to have reached out to lawmakers to water down a bill that could shut down military courts altogether. The military succeeded in keeping the courts handling first trials.