EVERY Sunday, one in five families in South Korea settles down to “Real Men”, a reality television show that thrusts pop stars, comedians and actors into the country’s armed forces. It has proved wildly popular in a country that is still technically at war with North Korea and that requires all able-bodied men to complete at least 21 months of military service. Women, who do not serve, say it is a peek into their sons’ and brothers’ transition to manhood. What they see is rigorous training, pride and plenty of brotherhood.
Yet the camaraderie of the show is in stark contrast to a more bruising reality for some conscripts. In recent months reports have trickled out of South Korea’s barracks of beatings, humiliation and verbal abuse. News of a young conscript’s death surfaced in August. Yoon’s alleged abusers (his full name has not been divulged) were fellow conscripts who had themselves been abused by a sergeant. They are said to have force-fed Yoon toothpaste, rubbed an irritant onto his genitals and made him lick their spit off the ground. After beatings, they revived him with an intravenous drip. Then they beat him again.
The case has shocked South Koreans—as did an incident in 2011 when a badly bullied conscript went on a shooting rampage, killing four people; and another in 2005 when a soldier killed eight others with a grenade after being tormented by them. That year, an army captain was arrested for forcing 200 conscripts to eat turds as punishment for dirty latrines. Since January around 350 cases of abuse have been put to the National Human Rights Commission, a state outfit. Many more, say activists, go unreported.
Yoon’s case of hazing was uncovered by a civic group, the Centre for Military Human Rights Korea. Its director, Lim Tae-hoon, decries a “systematic attempt at a cover-up”. The army’s chief of staff has resigned. The defence ministry has called for a permanent human-rights commission for the armed forces to help prevent further abuse. And the entire army suspended duties recently for a daylong session on human rights. This month military prosecutors changed the charge against four of the soldiers alleged to have killed Yoon from manslaughter to murder.
Calls for sweeping reform to barrack-room culture are all too familiar. Physical abuse in South Korea’s 650,000-strong conscript army has long been tolerated as a means to toughen troops against a northern army thought to be twice as large. Two military coups and a long period of martial law (under the current president’s late father, Park Chung-hee) have given the army exceptional leeway in how it conducts its affairs. It is largely immune from democratic oversight.
That means tormentors are not properly punished. Around 150 bodies remain in the army’s morgue. Their cause of death is given as “failure to adjust to military life”. But relatives refuse to collect the bodies because they want an independent investigation to confirm the cause of death. Military courts, says Choe Kang-wook, a former lawyer in the army, are the “shame of South Korea”. High-ranking generals without legal knowledge preside over court proceedings.
As more rich countries drop conscription, South Korea has become an outlier, says Kim Du-kwan, a former minister who is now fighting to end it in his country, too. He takes the North Korean threat seriously. But what good, he asks, is “wielding a gun and not much more” when military strength is now based on sophisticated technology? He frets that abusers foment internal division, too. The armed forces have long used national security as a reason for keeping conscription and fending off civilian oversight. Proponents of a standing army, like Mr Kim, argue that South Korea’s security would be better served by just the opposite.
I thought this was a really interesting outside perspective of the army culture in SK and also a nice round-up of what has been going on in recent months. Also, first time posting. Sorry mods, I hope I managed to make the cut the right way (what were the odds of me getting it right in one go?). =P *slightly disoriented*