SEOUL, South Korea — “So you think you can discuss military issues without even having served?” Conservative lawmaker Han Gi-ho hurled that question at conscientious objector Lim Tae-hoon in a parliamentary hearing. “You didn't even go!”
Lim is accustomed to such attacks. An openly gay activist, in 2005 he opted for a short prison sentence in lieu of the mandatory two-year military service — to protest bullying and a ban on gay sexual relations. He now campaigns against what he calls the army’s ferocious and unresponsive culture.
“Am I mentally disabled?” he snapped back. “If you look at the [army’s] mental condition assessment chart, it says I am sexually disabled.”
Lim is one of a handful of activists fighting to pry open what he calls a secretive institution where allegations of bullying have long remained in the shadows, and where commanders, he argues, have a history of acting with impunity against their underlings.
The movement has gained momentum recently, riding national anger over the high-profile death of a conscript last April. Flogged and kicked for months, forced to lick phlegm off the floor, and covered in bruises, Private Yoon Seung-joo choked while being force-fed and beaten. He was rushed to the hospital but didn’t survive.
Officials didn’t release the bulk of these details for four months. Instead they emerged via a leaked report obtained by Lim’s group, the Center for Military Human Rights.
This month, the army upgraded charges against four soldiers from manslaughter to murder, also accusing them of destroying evidence by ripping out the victim’s diary pages and attempting to blackmail witnesses.
The tragedy is hardly unusual.
Earlier this month, two soldiers died in a mock captivity training after their heads were wrapped in cloth and their hands tied behind their backs. Since July, another four conscripts have killed themselves. Another outcast even snapped and went on a shooting rampage, killing five of his colleagues before a failed suicide attempt. Close to 800 servicemen have taken their own lives in the past decade, according to government figures.
The allegations have been explosive in South Korea, a nation locked in a love-hate relationship with the idea of military valor. On the one hand, mandatory service is treated as a prerequisite to business and political success, and able-bodied men who haven’t earned their stars can be ostracized. On the other, two years spent enduring army hardship — with widespread bullying, poor conditions and abysmal pay — is akin to death and taxes: a near-certainty that anxious sons and their mothers dread.
Many young men clamor for a way out. One popular route is through a lottery to join the US military as a Korean staffer, while a few even undergo surgery specially designed to damage body parts on purpose, landing a medical waiver. A smaller contingent willfully enter prison as conscientious objectors. Nine out of 10 conscientious objectors behind bars around the world are South Korean, according to a 2013 United Nations report — a number that has drawn the criticism from the organization.
Military service is as much a part of public life in South Korea as the anger every few years over stories of abuse. This time, the intensity of the outcry has prompted a rebuke from President Park Geun-hye, who has called for measures to rein in violence. Other civic groups are pushing for greater civilian checks on the military, an institution has far more leeway than other ministries in matters of secrecy and internal policing with little parliamentary scrutiny.
Until the late 1980s, South Korea was a dictatorship that placed the military on a pedestal as the first line of defense against its enemy North Korea. It was also the institution that maintained order so the country could industrialize its way out of poverty.
Today, South Korea maintains a tangle of Cold War-era national security laws that give the army significant discretion over its affairs, often away from the eyes of civilian policymakers.
Lim, for one, seeks the establishment of a civilian watchdog body with the legal power to oversee the military’s judicial system. “The problem is that the military polices itself,” he told GlobalPost. “Army bullying is not just a matter of aggressor and victim, but a wider issue that goes straight to the heart of the twisted culture that the army has created.”
In recent months, the Ministry of National Defense has responded with a handful of changes, allowing parents to visit their children more often, offering more flexible leave dates, and renovating barracks to be friendlier places. The military “is deeply considering various things to protect the armed forces’ basic rights, and to improve human rights in the barracks,” said spokesman Kwon Kihyeon.
The body defends its record, pointing out that, for the first time in its history, it has opened a public line of communications on the bullying issue, gathering complaints and uncovering 4,000 instances of previously unreported abuses. Earlier, such inquiries tended to stay within military walls.
Lim argues that these are cosmetic adjustments, skirting around the deeper attitude of national privilege.
“This is a system in which the army cannot discuss its own problems,” said Lim. “The Ministry of National Defense has shown us that it can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs in a democratic way.”
Some conscripts agree with that sentiment. “Hazing, verbal nastiness, getting kicked and thrown into the mud for looking a little weak and not speaking promptly enough — we saw it all the time,” said one former marine who completed his service last year, but asked not to be named, fearing that his aggressors would find him. “I don’t know what the president and the army expect to change unless there is a complete overhaul in their way of thinking.”
“Korea is a democracy now. But the senior army officials still think like we’re in the 1980s,” he added. “The officers don’t really care if you are beaten up, but they only start caring if our democracy makes them look bad.”
Max Kim contributed reporting.
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