In a July 14, 2005 article, The Economist related a standing black joke among South Korea's 650,000-plus conscripts that, in the event of a conflict with the communist North, Southern soldiers would first aim their rifles not at the enemy but at the heads of those leading the charge on their own side. The reason: the grisly record of bullying and the abysmal living conditions long endured by South Korea's conscripts. At that time, a young private, reportedly acting out of revenge for prolonged abuse at the hands of superiors, killed eight fellow soldiers in the fortified area separating the two Koreas.
Things haven't improved over the past nine years. A former South Korean student of mine tells me that the country is in shock and grief and outrage over the recent scandal of six soldiers accused of harassing and beating a junior conscript, Private Yun, to death; four have been charged with manslaughter, although the prosecution is contemplating murder charges to be decided next week. The New York Times today reported that the soldiers beat the 20 year old private almost a hundred times a day, every day for a month and the abuse finally ended on April 6 when the victim collapsed, choking on a piece of food during a beating. He died the next day at the hospital. It was reported that the soldier died of asphyxiation, but the Center for Military Human Rights contradicts that conclusion and revealed its report on July 31, saying that he died of the beatings received and published photos of his body covered with bruises and gashes.
Such abuses have been going on for decades and reportedly some 774 soldiers have committed suicide in the past ten years, as a way to flee the abuse. The President of Korea expressed outrage at the human rights report and the Army chief of staff resigned on August 5. The South Korean Defense Minister vowed to reform the military's use of violence against conscripts. Hopefully more will come of that vow than in 2005.