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Shining Light on Brutal Military Practices: Fiction or Our Reality?

기사승인 [352호] 2021.12.06  

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In present-day South Korea, all men are obligated to carry out military service for 18 months for the sake of national security. Regarding this obligation, the original Netflix TV drama “D.P.” has been gaining popularity as it was able to provide the public with a detailed look at life inside the Korean military. The drama includes scenes of physical, verbal, and sexual harassment between the soldiers and their seniors, and these scenes were the main reason the show gained interest from the viewers. Many were shocked to see such violence being portrayed in the military, and this raised awareness as to whether the show was merely fiction or realistically showing the environment of the soldiers. Although some claim that the scenes of violence and harassment were exaggerated, there have been continuous issues of violence within the military, leading to problems such as trauma or even suicide.

The Reality of the Korean Military: Continuous Acts of Violence

Compared to 2014, the time in which “D.P.” was set in, the environment of the military has indeed changed for the better. However, there are still incidents that make it to the news regarding harassment between the soldiers. In October, there was an issue of military violence where a senior soldier ordered his juniors to drink air fresheners and another issue where one senior tried to light a junior soldiers’ hands on fire after soaking their hands in hand sanitizer. There have also been cases of verbal harassment as well. According to SBS news, it was tipped off that the senior soldiers had forced their juniors to call them “master” or contrariwise, call the juniors their “slaves”. There have also been reports regarding sexual harassment between the soldiers as well. Cho Kyu-suk, Coordinator of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea explained, “Although the acts of physical violence have decreased immensely, subtle yet regular acts of sexual violence, including sexual harassment or sexual discrimination, have actually increased.” According to a survey conducted by the National Assembly, 70% of the 500 men in their 20s and 30s who had undergone their mandatory military service answered “Yes” to the question, “Have you ever witnessed military violence during your time serving at the military?” Furthermore, almost 60% stated that they themselves had undergone some sort of harassment while working at the military. Over 80% of the answers argued that the lack of effort from the seniors to try to change the military culture of harassment was the greatest reason for the continuous military violence. As can be seen, the scenes of harassment from “D.P.” cannot be claimed to be simply “made-up”, as the violent military culture still exists within our society today.

The Traumas of the Soldiers Leading to a Dark End

On September 7, a soldier serving in the Korean Navy ended up taking his own life after enduring four months of continuous bullying and harassment from his senior soldier. Furthermore, according to Hankookilbo, a soldier chose to end his life after being sexually harassed by his senior for two months. Likewise, the bullying that is occurring cannot be looked upon as a simple occurrence. The harassment has led the victims to suffer immensely, making some of them choose to end their own life. A c c o r d i n g t o t h e M i n i s t r y o f National Defense, during the ten year term from 2011 to 2020, suicide rates within the military have decreased. However, it was presented that of the accidents that led to death, suicide ranked the highest in occurrence. The statistics showed that in 2011 and 2012, the percentage of suicide that made up the accidents occurring within the military were 68% and 65%, while the percentages grew in 2019 and 2020, up to 72% and 76%. The reason for the soldiers’ decision to end their lives leads back to the continuous incidents of military violence.

Ongoing Effort for Prevention & Protection

Despite the ongoing issues of military violence that still pose an issue today, there have been various efforts to change the military culture of the past. One of the major changes that have helped bring this transition was the permission of soldiers’ cellphone usage. In the past, such electronic devices were completely prohibited. There were very limited methods for the soldiers to communicate with society outside the military, naturally leading to the spread of immoral actions and incidents. However, starting from last year, the Korean military has allowed soldiers to use their phones after the daily schedule was finished. Seo Cheon-gyu, a Professor in the Department of Military Science and Art at Konyang University, said, “One of the major reasons for military violence is due to the military’s cutoff environment. Allowing the usage of smart-phones to connect the soldiers with their family can be considered the first step towards bringing a change.” In other words, by giving them access to the world outside the walls of the military, soldiers are now able to request help if issues or harassment arise, which has led to the decrease of military harassment. Numerous laws that work to protect the human rights of the soldiers also exist. The Framework Act on Military Status and Service, enforced in 2017, works to guarantee the fundamental rights of soldiers. Also, the Military Criminal Act, enforced in 2016, works to punish those who commit violation against human rights. There have also been efforts of various organizations that work to protect the rights of the soldiers, one of the representative organizations being the Center for Military Human Rights Korea. Coordinator Cho explained what the center has been providing for the soldiers: “In order to protect the soldiers’ human rights, the center has been providing various services including victim counseling, legal and medical support for victims of harassment, social campaigns, and so on. We also are continuing to conduct research regarding military rights policies along with monitoring the Ministry of National Defense and the National Assembly.”

Protecting Our Protectors: What Can We Do?

The bad practices of military violence have lasted too long. It is time for the government along with the public to recognize the problems regarding the soldiers’ human rights. To stop such violence, changes must be made to both the internal and external sections of the military. The internal changes that must be made focus on protecting the victims and educating the officials to make sure they are aware of how to protect the victims. Coordinator Cho said, “In order to make sure the victims are protected, officials must be familiarized with the measures taken against the offenders, and this can be done through substantial human rights education.” He continued by mentioning the importance of such education to be “… understood by the officials as an essential part of military violence protection, rather than being used to simply show off customary improvements.” The external changes that must be made mainly refer to the creation of a “military ombudsman” or also called the Military Human Rights Protection System. Taken from the Northern European concept of ombudsman, the “military ombudsman” refers to an institution that investigates complaints filed by victims of unfairness or harassment. These files are then investigated and processed from a third person viewpoint with hopes to create a fair military environment and society. Song Ki-chun, a Professor at Jeonbuk National University Law School, explained, “What is currently needed is a stronger external institution in order to protect the human rights of the soldiers, and the creation of the Military Human Rights Protection System is a representative example of such.”

Paving the Road for a Better Military Environment

Regardless of the continuous issues regarding military violence, it is true that the overall culture of harassment has decreased immensely. This is credited to the continuous efforts of those within the military and our society. However, the fact that such acts of violence have decreased when compared to the past does not mean we are close to solving this issue entirely. We still have a long way to go when it comes to providing a humane and healthy environment for those serving in the military. Recognizing this problem along with its seriousness may be the first step in doing so

Shin Yoobin yoobinie22@hanyang.ac.kr

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