A terrible accident befell a soldier on September 27; while he was returning to his living quarters in Cheorwon, a stray bullet took the life of this young man in his twenties. This incident shook the entire country as the government initially explained that a bullet ricocheted off a nearby object but reversed their announcement only 12 days later. Judging by the way officials have underplayed the gravity of military causalities, it seems ever more clear that soldiers are not receiving the treatment they deserve.
Every time a tragedy happens in the military, whether it is of a solider getting injured or a life being lost, the military officials first decree that it was an innocent accident. Even before undergoing meticulous investigation, they come up with an excuse to sweep any wrongdoings under the rug. Nobody ever takes responsibility. Every healthy South Korean man must undergo a compulsory two years of military training, due to the relentless threat of a possible war from the North Korean regime. However, continuous mistreatment towards young Korean soldiers has spurred anger and distrust amongst the public, especially mothers who have to send their sons away.
▲ PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK. Korean soldiers
The Past Blunders
The preposterous excuse announced by officials for the death of the young solider infuriated the public even more. It was only after the bereaved family consistently demanded to ascertain the truth that President Moon Jae-in ordered the Minister of National Defense, Song Young-moo, to launch a special investigation into the matter. It was concluded by the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) that this individual's death could have been avoided at any time—a single safety check could have saved the life of the youngster. Although the military authorities originally tried to evade any responsibility by attributing the soldier’s death to a bullet rebounded from a nearby shooting range, it seems to have backfired as the authority is now in the crosshairs.
Time and again, administrations have tossed the responsibility of these deplorable accidents to each other in handling fatal weaponry. In May 2015, three people were killed, and two others were injured after a shooting rampage at a training center in the village of Naegokdong, Seoul. The authority initially announced that only six shots were fired, which was later revised to 20 shots. At the time of the accident, only six assistants were present supervising the shooting training. Hence, in order to avoid accusations of insufficiency safety measures, the number of gun shots was reduced from 20 to six.
Proudly displayed at Korea’s Criminal Investigation Command (CIC) Homepage is the slogan, “Pursue Truth and Protect Human Rights.” Yet with the countless number of similar incidents occurring without any signs of improvement, even the seeming truth revealed to the public seems doubtful. Impetuously whitewashing their misconducts and negligence is by no means pursing veracity and soldiers’ rights have been trampled on left and right. How many more tragedies at the expense of innocent soldiers should take place before the authorities responsibility is brought to justice?
In principle, a soldier who is injured during training is supposed to be treated in military hospitals, while the medical expense is supposed to be paid by the government. However, soldiers are often rushed back into training without sufficient recuperation if the degree of injury is not noticeable. This is due to the nature of the military—if one person is absent, the remaining members must collectively fulfill the duties of the injured. For this reason, soldiers are frequently denied their rights to be treated until full recovery.
What is more, the compensation system for the injured and deceased soldiers is another problematic area. If the soldier is involved in public affairs, he is classified as “injured from public duties” and receives compensation accordingly. He is also able to receive so-called “national compensation” or “national veterans benefits,” after being discharged from the military. However, Korean soldiers are not eligible to apply for both national compensation and veterans benefits at the same time since receiving double compensation is prohibited by law. In the case of the aforementioned case involving a stray bullet, although the cause of demise is obviously due to negligence on the part of the authority, the family of the deceased is only entitled to national veterans benefits.
▲ PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK. Site of a shooting range
The law that prohibits soldiers from receiving double compensation is a remnant from the troubled past of Korea when former President Park Chung-hee came up with the legislation to prevent the Vietnam War veterans from simultaneously applying for national and veterans’ compensation. “It is an unethical and irrelevant bylaw that should be discussed and abolished in the upcoming constitutional amendments,” declared Kim Hyung Nam, counsel support team manager at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK).
Compared to other advanced countries, Korean soldiers are not adequately protected by the government, especially considering how military service is mandatory for Korean men, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of danger while honorably serving the nation. When applying as a veteran, they must submit proof of injury while performing official duties as a soldier. On the other hand, in the United States (U.S.), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a federal agency, is in charge of testifying for the wounded soldier. For obvious reasons, the likelihood of a single individual navigating the complicated procedures to qualify as a veteran is undoubtedly slim.
Pinocchio in Military
“The army is an organization capable of lying about something that will soon be proved false,” states Kim. Since the military is isolated from the capital, military officials assume that any misbehavior will go unnoticed. Although several organizations such as the CMHRK and social media have made efforts to bring the injustice to light, military officials still hold the belief that they are more or less shielded from prosecution.
The military is a highly clandestine and secretive organization as it handles the extremely sensitive issue of national security. It has its own court, prosecutors, and judicial police. This is the reason why the public is not fully cognizant of human rights violations in the military and prevention of avoidable accidents is so evasive. Therefore, to regain the trust of the public, Kim suggests that “the judicial system of the military should be transferred to the private sector, and that the military should be recognized as a national institution whose operation should be laid bare for the public to see.” Although complete transparency could be unrealistic, there is still a lot that the military can do to improve transparency and facilitate communication with the public.
Every single time a life is lost, or a soldier is in a critical condition due to a flaw in the military system, officials have tried to deny any responsibility. Since the army is so isolated, they have yet to learn that avoiding accountability does not solve the problem; rather, it aggravates the situation as their nonsensical excuses are interpreted as undermining the public. There is an increasing number of voices that proposes the military courts operate only during wartime, so that soldiers involved in accidents can receive the full compensation they deserve in private courts. By bringing each case under the public scrutiny, those who are at fault will be swiftly brought to justice.