Killing spree highlights stress of South Korea military service

by Giles Hewitt, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 24 2014 10:26 AM | Updated as of Jun 24 2014 06:26 PM

SEOUL - A deadly shooting spree by a South Korean military serviceman has once again raised questions over the wisdom of deploying young, inexperienced and often unprepared conscripts along the world's last Cold War frontier.

It is still unclear what caused the 22-year-old sergeant, identified only by his family name Lim, to suddenly turn his gun on members of his own unit near the border with North Korea last Saturday, killing five and wounding seven.

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.

But that alone does not explain why he acted as he did, especially as he only had a few months remaining of the two years' military service that is mandatory for every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35.

And Lim's is not an isolated case, with several other instances in the past decade of military servicemen posted in the border area turning their weapons on their fellow soldiers.

The South Korean armed forces rely heavily on the military service system, with conscripts accounting for the lion's share of its 690,000 active personnel.

Cha Myung-Ho, a professor of psychiatric counselling at Pyeongtaek University who has years of experience working with military personnel, says 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.

And military service in South Korea involves genuine combat duty, often along the border with North Korea which former US President Bill Clinton once described as the "scariest place on earth".

Because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war, and the 250-kilometre (155-mile) long border bristles with barbed wire fencing, guard posts and landmines.

- 'Last Cold War frontier' -

"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.

For many, military service is an unwanted and deeply resented intrusion that interferes with studies or nascent careers in a hyper-competitive society.

The vast majority, however unwillingly, buckle down, knowing that refusal to serve means an automatic prison term.

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 May 2010, 46 sailors -- including 16 who were on their military service -- died in the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan.

South Korea said it was hit by a North Korean torpedo, but Pyongyang has always denied any involvement.

In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines -- both of them young conscripts.

For decades, the toughness of military life was exacerbated by brutal bullying in the barracks, which drove some to suicide and others to the sort of murderous action taken by Sergeant Lim.

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.

Despite the threat of prison time, hundreds try and avoid the draft every year, often in quite extreme ways -- including starving themselves to fail the medical.

A few years ago, there was even a mini-fad for large tattoos, which carry an association with organised crime in South Korea and can result in people being declared unsuitable for military service.


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