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South Korea's Army Chief of Staff has resigned amid public outrage over the death of an abused soldier, the latest incident to highlight the dark side of the nation's extreme competitiveness, says analyst Shihoko Goto.
The 23-year-old army private, identified by his surname Yun, was reportedly not only bullied, but also was systematically assaulted by fellow soldiers. Among other things, he had been forced to eat a tube of toothpaste and lick the spit of other soldiers from the ground, according to local media reports. "Army Chief of Staff Kwon Oh-sung tendered his resignation [to take responsibility] not just for Yun's case but for the series of other incidents that have taken place within the Army," Kim Min-seok, the spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, was quoted as saying on August 5.
The resignation follows two separate suicides by army privates last month, and a deadly shooting spree in June in which a sergeant killed five members of his unit for taunting him. South Korea's military service is mandatory for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35.
Shihoko Goto, South Korea analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, says in a DW interview that the increasing levels of bullying in the army are related to cultural tensions creating competition between "achievers" and "non-achievers" in Korean society.
DW: According to media reports, barrack-room bullying has long tainted South Korea's military service. Why is this practice so widespread?
Shihoko Goto: The latest incident highlights the dark side of South Korea's meteoric rise, namely intense competition and a narrowly defined view of success that prevails across society, including the military. National service is compulsory for all Korean men, and is seen as a rite of passage to manhood.
Goto: "The latest incident highlights the dark side of South Korea's meteoric rise, namely intense competition and a narrowly defined view of success"
At the same time, Korean media has repeatedly pointed out that 16 sons of high-ranking Korean government officials have given up Korean citizenship in part to avoid being corralled into military service.
How much pressure does the military service put on young adults drafted into the armed forces?
Clearly, while the very real threat of North Korea looms large and the need for a strong, sizeable military is clear, the culture itself has come under criticism long before these recent incidents of extreme bullying. Not all who are in the service can conform to the image of the military projected by the media. Yet such unreal expectations can encourage those who relish military life to abuse the misfits.
Hazing and harassment have reportedly been a continuous problem in all branches of the ROK military. What is being done to deal with this issue?
Bullying has been pervasive in the Korean army for years. After major incidents were reported publicly, as was the case in 2005 and 2011, there had been promises from the authorities to press ahead with reform.
The question now is what will be different this time, and what steps can actually be taken to prevent future incidents? Defense Minister Han Min-koo stated that officers should "overhaul the culture in barracks," but did not elaborate on how that may be done.
Taking an example from the US army in terms of how to deal with diversity both within and outside its ranks may be a step forward. Since revelations of abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq post-9/11, US forces have been particularly careful in terms of training soldiers on cultural sensitivities and differences in societal values. This has been passed on not just to the top brass, but also to young recruits, given that they often need to train with and instruct recruits from other nations.
The existence of such diversity even within the Korean army itself needs to be acknowledged, and offering individual counseling as well as group discussion sessions may also provide some relief too.
Is such kind of behavior limited to the armed forces?
No. It should be noted too that Koreans place a tremendously high priority on academic excellence. Getting into the country's best universities is the ultimate goal for most students and their parents from a very early age. That not only produces highly cossetted youths whose families are focused on going to the right school, but also deepens the divide between those young men who are academic achievers and those who are not.
Tensions between those two groups are rising in a society that does not allow second chances to get into a "good" school, and then get set on a "good" career path. When those two groups are thrust together in military service, the situation can lead to conflict, and to tragedies.
What can South Korean society do to keep this sort of incidents from happening again?
Not all who are in the military service can conform to the image of the military projected by the media, says Goto
The recent incidents have brought the problems of barrack culture to the limelight, and may lead to Seoul taking steps in the right direction. Public discussions about how the current system needs to be reformed are heartening, and it should now be clear that the army is under close scrutiny from the government to change, rather than to hide inconvenient truths for the sake of self-preservation.
At the same time, South Korea is a notably high-pressured society, and has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. This should be an opportunity for the country to discuss the possibility of overhauling its national defense strategy starting with the national service system, but more broadly, to reassess its educational system and labor market as well.
Shihoko Goto is the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, where she is responsible for research, programming, and publications on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.