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South Korea: Military Camps Or Torture Centres?

South Korea: Military Camps Or Government Run Torture Centres?

Out of several recent incidents concerning conscripted men, two have sparked public outrage and triggered a call for an overhaul of the conscription system in South Korea.

The first case concerns Mr. Lim, a young conscript, who turned his gun on his fellow conscripts and opened fire on 21 June 2014. As a result, five men were killed and seven injured. After the incident, Mr. Lim deserted his barracks and attempted suicide. He survived and was arrested.

Following his arrest, the question of what made Mr. Lim pull the trigger arose. He had only three months left before his discharge from military service. It turns out, according to various media reports, Mr. Lim had been suffering from organized bullying and humiliation, both by his seniors and juniors in the military base for many months.

The second case that has caught South Korean public attention involves Mr. Yoon, another young conscript, who was reportedly tortured to death by seniors 35 days after arriving at the military camp in which he was designated to serve. The incident occurred in early April 2014, but became public information only recently.

According to media reports, the seniors beat Mr. Yoon all over his body, including on his chest and abdomen. They forced Mr. Yoon to eat toothpaste, sexually harassed him, and subjected him to other violent bullying, all with the acquiescence of military officials. His torture lasted for about a month.

On 6 April 2014, he suddenly collapsed, allegedly while he was being beaten, and while his mouth was stuffed full of frozen food. He died shortly thereafter. Attempts were made to cover up the incident with a falsified report. But a senior, who was the one of participants of the organized violent bullying, testified to the truth.

Higher ranked military officials have claimed that practices of torture or ill-treatment are things of the past. However, the fact is cases of torture are not reported, since such a case can affect the officer's promotion opportunities. Ill-treatment persists, but does not make it to statistical records.

The public is aware that this conduct continues and the military barracks are places where young conscripts have to endure a certain amount of torture or ill-treatment. What is dangerous is the mindset of the public that such practices are someone else's story; few are bothered enough to try to change this practice. Parents simply expect their sons to complete military service without getting into any trouble. This makes it difficult to even attempt to change the culture of ill-treatment inside the restricted barracks, where a conscript is always at high risk of institutional violence.

The public mocks the situation darkly by saying that if a conscript is patient enough with his ill-treatment in a military camp, then he risks a fate similar to Mr. Yoon, and, if not, he risks suffering Mr. Lim's fate. Despite there being some internal complaint mechanisms, the conscripts are aware that these mechanisms are of no use. The complainants are labeled as traitors and isolated inside the camp or when transferred to another camp. In addition, the victims are often the ones who receive disciplinary action for "causing" ill-treatment.

A major concern, of particular importance, is that there is no independent investigation mechanism to address such incidents in the military. This is a glaring omission of oversight given such incidents are nothing new. A total of 152 bodies from deaths classified as "failure to adjust to military life" are still being kept in the morgue. Families have refused to take back these bodies until a thorough and independent investigation is conducted. For the last five years, statistics show a total of over 120 annual deaths in military camps, with over 80 tagged as suicides.

But, there is something else at play here. A fact reported in connection with the death of Mr. Yoon is illustrative. One of Mr. Yoon's torturers is himself known to be a past victim of the same crimes; he was reportedly tortured and ill-treated when he was a junior.

In the conscription system, these acts of violence that juniors experience are repeated in more sophisticated ways when juniors become seniors. No matter what kind of pleasant personality a young conscript may possess, if he is forced into such an environment for long, there are high chances he will become a victim first and a perpetrator later. This is how a senior gets reward for the suffering experience that he had to endure in his junior period.

The South Korean military conscription system allows for the practice of ill-treatment to operate. And, it is even worse when it comes to sexual minorities who are forced to choose between a criminal records or conscription in a system that will specifically targeted them for sexual abuse because of their sexuality.

This vicious circle of violence has been perpetuated since the inception of military camps for conscripts in South Korea. It was the Japanese occupiers, for their own needs in the Pacific War in 1944, who first imposed the conscription system in the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean government later resumed it in 1951. The armistice agreement situation in the Korean Peninsula, along with a couple of unfortunate military attacks, has perpetuated the system for the last 60 years. Past military governments brainwashed citizens that it is a "divine" duty to protect the nation and that men must join the army. Due to this widespread perception, conscientious objectors have been consistently socially discriminated against by the whole of society.

The Ministry of National Defence has consistently cited national security to justify the continued use of the current conscription system. However, in doing so, it is the Ministry that has jeopardized both national and human security, refusing to be vigilant against torture and ill-treatment of its own citizens within military camps and to accept independent investigations.

If the state wishes to sustain the system, it must fulfill its responsibility of taking care of those it conscripts. Otherwise, it will be safer for South Korean men to choose prison instead of military service. There is a greater chance of South Korean prison inmates being able to protect their physical integrity and, if an unfortunate incident occurs, there is a greater possibility that an independent investigation will be conducted to ascertain the truth.

It is time for the public to revisit the claims that sustain the conscription system.

ENDS

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