Moral is sometimes a problem in the South Korean military. In the 1990s, two defense ministers resigned after a "rash or insubordination and mutiny”. One South Korean officer said that enlisted men lacked respect for officers and "officers would not be able to control their men."

In the last few months of 1994 three lieutenants deserted the army to protest mutinous acts by soldiers under their command. In one case a conscript shot two men during a firing exercise and then shot himself. In another case an officer-under-training held up a bank with an unloaded rifle. There were also reports of soldiers having to pay their superior officers and volunteering their wives to work as maids for promotions.

Bullying, hazing and cruelty in the barracks have long been a blemish the South Korean armed forces, and have been blamed for suicides and shooting incidents. The armed has made some efforts to tackle bullying, which is referred to as "distorted military culture".

In 2014 there were a number of deadly incidents involving South Korean soldiers. Four soldiers were charged with murder over the death of a conscript who was repeatedly bullied and died in April 2014 after being struck on the chest, causing him to choke on food. Between July and September 2014, four young conscripts killed themselves. In June 2014, June a soldier shot himself, but survived, after killing five members of his unit. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2014]

South Korea nation remains technically at war with North Korea. The demilitarised zone (DMZ) which divides the two nations is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the world. Many are also unhappy with the military service requirement. Almost all South Korean men must serve for about two years, one of the longest conscription periods in the world.

Stress of Serving in the South Korean Military

On why there are shooting incidents and suicided among South Korean soldiers, Cha Myung-Ho, a professor of psychiatric counselling at Pyeongtaek University who has years of experience working with military personnel, told AFP, the pressures facing the young servicemen can be daunting. After what is often quite a cosseted childhood and teenaged youth, they are suddenly plunged into a world of harsh military discipline. "These young men are essentially confronting the enemy on the world's last Cold War frontier, so it's a very stressful situation," Cha said. [Source: , Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2014]

Cha suggests the current generation feel the shock of military service far more acutely than previous ones, having grown up in a modern, affluent country and a society that is substantially more open and relaxed than the one their fathers knew. "Suddenly they are thrown into this harsh, challenging environment, and often thrown into it totally against their will," Cha said. The dangers they face are very real.

In recent years, the army has taken steps to stamp out what it described as this "distorted military culture", but Cha said it still had difficulties identifying and addressing the psychological problems of some recruits. "They have strengthened therapy programmes and quite a few senior officials have voiced concern and asked what else they could do," Cha said. "But they have been unable to make a coordinated effort throughout the armed forces, and many complain they don't have the time or energy to address mental issues when they are training soldiers for combat," he added.

World News reported; Military leaders have pledged to reform the armed forces and the treatment of conscripts. Under changes introduced by military leaders, conscripts are allowed more visits at their bases and days off and barracks have been upgraded. But some critics say the military has to change a culture of abuse, mostly among enlisted soldiers, and do something about commanders' inability to stop it. "I have doubts about whether people will trust the reform of military culture," said Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights who exposed the beating death case and who now sits on a military panel charged with studying reforms.

Hazing Death of a South Korean Conscript

In April 2014, 20-year-old Private First Class Yoon Seung-joo died after being struck on the chest, causing him to choke on food. For more than a month before that he was beaten and abused almost every day. Pictures of his body showed it covered with bruises and cuts, Four soldiers, also conscripts, accused of committing the crime were first charged with manslaughter but then the charges were upgraded to homicide, a step below murder. In October 2014, South Korean court-martial court convicted the four soldiers and sentenced them to long prison terms. [Source: Ju-min Park, World News, October 30, 2014]

Geoffrey Cain wrote in Global Post: 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 a watchdog group, the Center for Military Human Rights. The army upgraded charges against four soldiers from manslaughter, also accusing them of destroying evidence by ripping out the victim’s diary pages and attempting to blackmail witnesses. [Source: Geoffrey Cain, GlobalPost. NBC News, October 6, 2014]

World News reported: “The case shocked South Korea and led to the resignation of the army chief of staff. During the trial, witnesses testified that Yoon was beaten and denied food and sleep. The defendants had beaten and tormented him in the moments before he collapsed and died, one witness said. A panel of three military judges sentenced the four defendants to prison terms ranging from 25 to 45 years. The military prosecutor had sought the death penalty for one of them, a sergeant accused of being the main offender. The defendants said earlier they had not intended to kill Yoon. Members of Yoon's family, angered by what they regarded as a lesser charge of homicide, tried to rush the defendants after the sentences were handed down and had to be held back by military police. "How is this not murder?" Yoon's crying mother, Ahn Mi-ja, told reporters after the sentencing. "I'm going to leave this country. I can't live here any more."

Two South Korean Soldiers Die in Training Drill

In September 2014, two South Korean special forces soldiers died during training. Th BBC reported: The two men, both in their early 20s, collapsed during captivity training on Tuesday, Yonhap news agency said. They died of apparent suffocation, with a third man needing treatment, it said. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2014]

The incident happened at a Special Warfare Command unit in Jeungpyeong, south of Seoul. The men were being trained on what to do if captured, Yonhap said. Citing officials, it said they had spent more than an hour on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs wearing hoods over their faces.

Two of them "had breathing problems during the mock captivity training when their heads were wrapped in cloth, and died after being sent to hospital", said a Special Warfare Command spokesman. Yonhap quoted another official as saying the training programme had been adopted from the US, Britain and Australia and "there must have been some sloppiness in carrying out the training".

Suicides in the South Korean Military

The number of suicides in the military rose from 67 in 2004 to 97 in 2011 before falling to 79 by 2013. In 2014 the rate stood at a little over 11 per 100,000 which, the defence ministry has pointed out is lower than the national average of 23.5 suicides per 100,000 for South Korean men aged 20 to 29. [Source: AFP, August 12, 2014]

Between July and September 2014, four young conscripts killed themselves. In August 2014, AFP reported: “The South Korean military has reported two conscripts were found dead in an apparent suicide. The South Korean Defence Ministry said the two unnamed corporals, in the early 20s, were found hanged at one of their homes while on leave. Both men were from the 28th Infantry Division, serving near the border with North Korea.

“A defence ministry spokesman said they had been placed on a list of soldiers requiring special monitoring due to concerns over their mental stability. The spokesman said one of the soldiers was deemed unfit to serve last year, but continued at the request of his mother. Yonhap news agency reported the soldier had attempted suicide last October. Investigations are now underway on whether the two corporals were targets of bullying.

“Two army privates, also from the same division and listed as mentally vulnerable, committed suicide in the same month. Last week, all military servicemen halted their regular duties to take part in a day-long "moral education workshop" aimed at stamping out bullying.

Shooting Sprees and Mass Killing by South Korean Soldiers

In May 2015, a soldier in South Korea's reserves went on a shooting spree, killing a fellow soldier and injuring three comrades before shooting himself dead. Reuters reported: “The incident will spur questions over the country's rules on compulsory military service at a time when its military faces criticism of lax discipline in some units, leading to attacks on soldiers by colleagues suffering from psychological problems. [Source: Reuters, May 13, 2015]

“The military official said the reservist turned his K-2 assault rifle on fellow soldiers during mandatory training at a reserve forces site in the capital, Seoul. He was 24, said South Korean cable television network YTN. "The army is investigating the incident," said the military official, who declined to be identified because the topic is sensitive.

In 1984 a private opened fire and threw a grenade at fellow soldiers in their barracks, killing 15. The soldier, Cho Jun-Hee, then crossed the border to defect to the North, a move which Pyongyang's state media later confirmed.

South Korean Soldier Kills Five in Shooting Rampage in 2014

In June 2014, a 22-year-old sergeant, identified as Sgt Lim, opened fire on his barrack and threw grenades, killing five fellow soldiers and injuring seven others, near the DMZ. He engaged in a shootout with military units and then shot himself, but survived. He was sentenced to death in a military court. Most of the victims were conscripts, aged from 19 to 23. According to military officials, Lim had trouble adapting to military life, and psychological evaluations had recommended that his officers keep a special eye on him. He had only a few months remaining of the two years' military service. [Source: AFP. The Guardian, February 3, 2015]

The Guardian reported: “The conscript killed five members of his unit and wounded seven at a guard post near the border with North Korea. After a 24-hour standoff with troops and despite pleas by his father to give himself up, Lim shot himself in the abdomen before being captured and taken to hospital. “The death penalty is inevitable for such a violent crime of killing innocent comrades at the point of a gun,” the judge was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying. Lim, in his early 20s, was described by an official as an introvert and the military said there had been concerns about his mental health, but he was deemed fit enough to be sent to the outpost.

At the time of the gun fight, Reuters reported: “South Korean troops were engaged in a fierce gun battle near an elementary school with a runaway soldier who had shot and killed five members of his unit on the border with North Korea. The 23-year-old army sergeant, surnamed Lim, had opened fire on other South Korean soldiers at a guard post on the eastern section of the heavily guarded frontier Saturday night. [Source: Reuters, June 22, 2014]

“The shooting spree left five dead and seven wounded - and triggered a massive manhunt after Lee fled the scene armed with a K-2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition. A defence ministry spokesman said Lim had been tracked and cornered just before 2:30 pm (0530 GMT) at a location 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border. "He shot at the pursuing troops and they returned fire," the spokesman said, adding that one officer had been wounded in the arm. "The situation is still ongoing," he said.

Kim So-Rae, a college student who lives in the area, said he had heard at least three separate exchanges of gunfire. "There are helicopters flying overhead," Kim told YTN television by telephone. "We haven't been told anything yet, so we're not evacuating. It's pretty scary." According to the military, Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.

“All those killed or wounded in Saturday's incident were members of Lim's own unit of the 22nd infantry division in the eastern province of Gangwon. The army issued its highest state of alert in nearby areas during the search for Lim, which had involved thousands of soldiers and police who set up roadblocks and inspected vehicles. Special commandos and army helicopters were also brought in to speed up the operation, while local residents were warned to stay indoors. Lim had difficulty adapting to the military, and past psychological evaluations had advised senior officers to pay him special attention, a defence ministry official who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

South Korean Soldier Kills Five in Shooting Rampage in 2011

In July 2011, a 19-year-old marine conscript killed four fellow soldiers in a shooting spree on Gangwha island near the border. Earlier he had tried to kill himself with a grenade but survived. He later said he had been bullied. For the killings he was sentenced to death. [Source: Associated Press, July 4, 2011]

Associated Press reported: “A corporal in South Korea's marine corps went on shooting rampage, killing four fellow soldiers and wounding another on a Yellow Sea island base near the country's tense border with North Korea, officials said. The corporal was taken into custody on Ganghwa Island, about 40 miles west of Seoul, but his motive remains unknown, defence officials said.

“The man, whose surname is Kim, was also wounded but it was unclear whether he harmed himself or was hurt when he was apprehended, the officials said. One of the killed soldiers was an officer, while the others were rank-and-file marines, the officials said. The weapon used in the shooting could not be identified immediately, officials said. South Korea stations hundreds of marines on front-line islands within easy striking distance of North Korea. The waters are claimed by both countries. Boats routinely jostle for position during crab-catching season and three deadly naval clashes since 1999 have taken dozens of lives.

South Korean Soldier Kills Eight in 2005

In June 2005, a North Korean soldier threw a hand grenade and opened fire at a front-line army unit in a shooting rampage that left eight soldiers dead and several others injured. The killer, Pfc. Kim Dong-min, later told investigators he went on that killing spree after being enraged by superiors who verbally assaulted him. [Source: Associated Press, July 4, 2011]

At the time of the incident, AFP reported: “Eight South Korean soldiers were killed and two others were seriously injured yesterday when a soldier went on a shooting rampage near the tense inter-Korean border, the defense ministry said. The man, identified as Private First Class Kim, 22, threw a grenade and fired from his rifle into an army barracks where his colleagues were sleeping in northeastern Yeoncheon early in the morning. Kim, under investigation after turning himself in, said he went on the shooting spree in a fit of rage because his senior colleagues had bullied him, according to the ministry. "Eight soldiers were killed and two others were seriously injured in the incident involving a grenade and a rifle at a guard post at 2:30am Sunday," the ministry said in a statement. [Source: AFP, June 2005]

“Twenty-five soldiers in their 20s were sleeping in the barracks at the time. As well as the hand grenade, Kim used about 40 rounds of ammunition, leaving platoon leader Lieutenant Kim Jong-myung and seven other enlisted soldiers dead. Two others who suffered shot wounds to their legs were immediately airlifted to a nearby hospital to undergo surgery. They were in serious but not critical condition.

“Ministry officials refrained from commenting on the cause of the tragedy which they said was still under scrutiny, however they largely blamed it on stress in military life. The attacker turned himself in shortly after the incident at Yeoncheon, 62km north of Seoul, which is just next to the tense military border with North Korea. "He got into a temper following verbal abuse by his senior soldiers. Details are still under investigation," Brigadier General Jang Seok-kyu, army spokesman, told a news conference. Kim was not found to have any history of mental illness, Jang added. The incident happened at a small guard post near the inter-Korean border, known as the Demilitarized Zone, that has separated the communist North and capitalist South for five decades.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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