World AffairsSociety
Fearing the InescapableWhy military violence is so prevalent but difficult to solve
Choi Jean  |  choijean@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2014.09.04  00:22:17
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“I AM at fault, but they are not innocent either because if anyone had been in my situation, living would be as painful as death…They did not realize how their actions can make someone so painful.” These words are from a memo by Sergeant Yim, the man responsible for the shooting in June that killed five soldiers, written minutes before he was captured. In his note, he implies to the bullying he experienced during early days of his service as the cause of his violent behavior. Yim was a frequent target of violence in the army, where he was often teased for his small build and stammering speech.
   Recently, violence in the military is being highlighted due to a variety of cases that have been reported. In many of these cases, the victims have been brutally killed or have committed suicide. As appalling as the recent outbreaks may be, the issue itself is not new. Violence in the army is a long-standing problem that is yet to be solved, especially because of its unique characteristics. What is so different about the nature of this violence?


Behind the covers


   Violence in the army has a long history and equally numerous victims suffered over those times. According to a poll by YTN and The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 52% of those who have served in the military replied that the violence and discrimination in the army are severe. There is also a problem of sexual assault, as according to the Military Human Rights Center Korea (MHRK), with about one rape case per day occurring in the military.
   One case of this feared phenomenon has become an appalling issue recently. Many Koreans were outraged at the recent death of a draftee with the surname Yoon, as his death was preceded by torturous acts from his superiors. This included ordering Yoon to lick their spit on the floor and assaulting him for “being too slow in his answers.” Yoon died from being brutally beaten by several soldiers, only 35 days since he entered his unit. This has resulted in a nation-wide shock and outrage, as well as the resignation of the commander of Yoon’s division and the Army Chief of Staff.

   These shocking incidents are not just seen on the news or in statistics. “I was beaten in the military several times a month” said one Yonsei student who was recently discharged in May 2014. “It’s actually quite common, but no one can report it because they fear their superiors. There is also no clear standard of ‘what violence is for soldiers even if they feel pain and discomfort from these assaults.”


The major differences


   Bullying is common in all groups of society, in workplaces and schools alike. The government has done much to solve the problem of bullying and violence in schools, including creating the 1388 hotline for victimized teenagers in schools. Similar progresses, however, have not been made in the military due to its unique characteristics.
   The military is a very exclusive society. No one knows what goes on behind those closed doors, and not many victims dare to expose what actually happens inside due to fear of revenge. This has led to many violence cases being silenced within the organization. The fact that the military is made up of strict hierarchal classes adds to this opacity, as superiors have absolute power to control their subordinates. This means that they have a sense of full authority, while the subordinates feel obliged to always follow their orders. Kong Jung-sik (Prof., Dept. of Criminal Psychology, Kyonggi University) stated for Donga Newsthat “When someone with absolute authority gives orders in a closed environment, even the average person tends to blindly follow them.”The soldiers in such pressurized environment feel obligated to do demeaning acts and submit to assaults, and sometimes even to hit their fellow soldiers when they are given an order.
   Living together in a group is also a big problem in that these soldiers have to live, eat, and work together for nearly two years. As their lives are so closely bonded, conflicts are bound to arise. The soldiers, tired from stresses of living as a group, instinctively sort out the weaker ones and attack them as a group. Chun Chang-soo, a military specialist lawyer stated for *Kukmin Ilbo* stated, “If there is no place for these soldiers to relieve their stress in the military, the violent acts can never stop.”
   The lack of an outside organization that monitors the military properly maybe another cause for unstoppable violence, as there is essentially no way for a victim of military violence to reach out and receive a tangible help. It is very difficult for a soldier to report violence to anyone within the army due to the fear of revenge from their superiors. Even if the victim manages to contact those with power, the fear of having to take over responsibility on the crime blocks the military superiors from properly handling the situation. Overall, the help from the external organization is necessary to resolve the problem. Without a proper system outside the army, many victims will bet rapped inside their units without being able to reach outside for help.
   In response to this problem, the MHRK announced earlier this year of its plan to set up a hotline called ‘Army Call’ to protect the human rights of soldiers. However, this system has not been set up yet, and there are also concerns about the professionalism of this system, for the counselors are expected to be ordinary volunteering citizens without expertise on counseling. The terrified victims will still practically have nowhere to turn to and have no way to escape.


The next step


   The unique nature of the army means that different approaches to resolve the problem of violence are necessary. Typical programs that are used in other organizations, such as educational programs or offering incentives for reporting violence within are currently not feasible in the military. Instead, an outside organization to supervise, or help the victims of violence in the army is desperately needed. “There are no other measures for this violence to stop other than someone from outside monitoring it,” said an anonymous Yonsei student who was released from service last year. Such organization could help the potential victims in multiple dimensions, by providing counseling or by being given the authority to move these victims to other units.
   There is also a need for increased transparency in the reporting of violence. Systems that protect the safety of reporters, by guaranteeing their anonymity should be adopted. There should also be clarity in the resolving of these cases, and the upper ranks should lead the way for such transparency and support for the victims.
   The punishment for the assailants should also be more severe and public in order to prevent the repetition of similar cases. In the past, the sentences were minimal, and the divisional commander had the authority to reduce the sentence. Last year, one draftee who choked and seared his subordinate with a lighter was sentenced with a fine of only \3million. Many soldiers are not intimidated by this meager punishment. Only with increased severity in punishment such as longer time in jail can such cases subside.
   Public interest is also a very trivial but important factor. For instance, supported by the fervent public outrage regarding the brutal death of Yoon, the military prosecutors are looking for the ways to press homicide charges on the assaulters which will most likely increase their sentences. The public’s interest and movement, such as protests by numerous human rights organizations, brought about a significant change in this case. Public interest is vital, not only for certain cases but also continually, to discourage future cases of violence in the army.


*                    *                  *


The military is more than a simple group. Rigid orders and hierarchies are indeed necessary for this organization to run properly and effectively. However, with strict hierarchy and endless rules comes stress for the draftees. Military violence inevitably stemmed from this hierarchal structure, and is yet to be solved because of its innate structural obstacle. However, this problem needs to be tackled, especially because life in the army is an unavoidable part of every healthy Korean man’s life, and also a part of their friends and family’s as well. Brutal violence should be stopped with the establishment of a well-funded outside organization that works for the rights of these young men, consistent public interest, and more stringent legal consequences for the attackers. As the soldiers have guarded our nation throughout history, it is now time for us to protect them from harm.

 

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