What appened to Private Joo?Korean males go into the army, serve their 26 months, then come home to tell their stories. For Private Joo Jung-wook, there were no stories to tell afterward.
"When I see young college kids or soldiers on the street, I feel my heart aching," says Private Joo's father, Joo Jong-woo, 54. The elder Mr. Joo is sitting in a small office in Myeong-dong that has been provided by the Roman Catholic Church for families who have lost sons in the military.
On March 6, 2001, Mr. Joo received a phone call at 9:35 a.m. at his Seoul office. On the other end was Jung-wook's company commander, Captain Kim Soo-hwan.
"Your son is dead," the officer told Mr. Joo.
"I thought it was a bad joke," says Mr. Joo. Not wanting to believe what he had heard, Mr. Joo dialed the number of his son's army base and asked to speak to his son. An officer on duty there confirmed the death.
At noon that same day, Mr. Joo went to Goseong, a small city on the east coast in Gangwon province and headquarters of the Korean Army's 22d Infantry Division. His wife Kim Jong-suk, 49 and other relatives followed a little bit later. At about 6 p.m., following a briefing, the parents saw the lifeless body of his 22-year-old son lying in a military morgue.
Every year approximately 250 Koreans lose their lives while serving their country. Some die of accidents during training or on missions, but about 40 percent of the deaths are, according to the army, due to suicide. The Ministry of National Defense says that out of 230 death cases last year, 66 were termed suicides.
For any military suicide, burial in the National Cemetery is not possible.
Private Joo Jong-wook, the army said, had taken his life.
Joo Jung-wook finished six weeks of basic training in Chuncheon, Gangwon province, at the end of February 2001. Soon after began further training at the base near Goseong where he would serve out the remainder of his tour. The army explained to Jong-woo and Jong-suk that their son had disappeared from a six-member patrol that was returning from guard duty along the coastline earlier that morning of March 6. The patrol had been out since midnight. According to army records, Private Joo dropped his winter gear and rifle, jumped over a 2.5-meter-high barbed wire fence, crossed 50 meters of coastline and then leaped off a cliff into the East Sea. Another soldier, standing in an observation post and holding binoculars, reportedly witnessed part of Private Joo's last moments from a spot 300 meters away. The time of the incident was 7:35 a.m.
One of the patrol members, Corporal Jang Young-soon, says that he last saw Private Joo at 7:20 a.m. In a 15-minute span, Private Joo apparently vanished and the patrol began to search for him. It was at the same time that Private Joo was spotted from the observation post.
In its final report, the army said there was lack of evidence of murder. Instead, the military decided that Private Joo, despairing of his lack of physical fitness, took his life. Lie detector tests were given to two soldiers who were on patrol with Private Joo, but not to the sole witness in the observation post. Because the army has not adequately explained why the man with binoculars was not tested, the couple feels they have been terribly deceived.
Private Joo's family stayed on in Goseong for four days. Despite urging by army officials, the couple refused to hold a funeral. They decided that without more proof they could not in good conscience bury their son. For them, Jong-wook had no reason to commit suicide. On March 5, the day before his death, Private Joo had written a letter home just a couple of hours before he went on duty. In the letter, he talked about his first leave, which was upcoming. "Soon I'll be seeing you guys. I cannot believe how time flies by." He wrote nothing about feeling depressed.
"I have been in the army and I can understand that sometimes physical punishment is given to bring new recruits up to speed," Joo Jong-wook says. Pausing, Mr. Joo adds, "Without a proper motive to commit suicide, I think maybe that's what happened."
Mr. Joo argues that although a witness may have seen Jung-wook running toward the sea, there is a blind spot from the observation post and anything could have happened. "Maybe he was forced into the water. Who knows?" Mr. Joo says that this son's battalion commander had told him that shortly before the accident the battalion had pardoned soldiers who had admitted that they had practiced violence and physical punishment to various members of the 22d Infantry. The family believes that Jung-wook might have been forced to take part in an "induction ceremony." Such ceremonies are illegal but are still practiced.
Members of Joo Jung-wook's 22d Infantry platoon say they don't recall anything unusual about Private Joo before his death. "Afterward, when we talked about the case, we were confused as well," Sergeant Chung Sun-jin says. "We could not figure out why he had done it. He just looked like any new recruit. Actually, we were more worried about other recruits than him. Maybe it was something at home."
Private Joo's patrol, which was heading back to its barracks, was marching in a single file, with Private Joo fourth from the front. The gap between patrol members was two to three meters. Members of the platoon told investigators that they had been so tired after their guard duty they had lost track of Private Joo. The question from his parents: How can anyone simply disappear from a tight formation? It's a question that does not make sense to the family, and one which the army cannot answer.
According to the witness in the observation post, Private Joo's body surfaced 20 to 30 seconds after it went into the water. An autopsy revealed plankton in his lungs. The short duration of the drowning is another sore point for the family. "We asked for a medical opinion and we found out that it takes at least 4 to 8 minutes for a body to drown," says Mr. Joo. "A quicker death in the water is possible, but in that case there would be no plankton in the body."
The family says that private Joo was a competent swimmer.
According to his friends, Joo Jung-wook was outgoing and worry-free. Mok Jung-soo, a friend from Seoul's Soongsil University, remembers talking to Joo Jung-wook right before he went into the miliary. "He was like everyone else who is waiting to enter the army. A little bit nervous about the unknown, but not particularly worried. He asked me to buy him a drink on his first leave."
Park Jung-sun, another college friend, says she was shocked when she heard the news. "If it was suicide, I still don't understand why. I just can't see it."
Every year, the Korean military deals with desperate families like the Joos. "Starting four or five years ago, we have been ordered to keep the scene of where the incident happened untouched until the family arrives while we try to make every death case as transparent as possible," says Lieutenant Colonel Yoo Young-sik of the Korean Navy. In many cases, tension between families and military officials grows. Receiving investigation materials takes time and frustrations increase. Often requests are denied for security reasons. "I understand why families are upset," says Lieutenant Colonel Yoo. "Who would not be upset? Distrust is great no matter what."
Distrust has played a big role for Private Yoo's parents. "We wanted the truth," says Joo Jung-woo. "Jung-wook's battalion commander said that people who like rock music have a tendency to commit suicide. When I heard that I could not believe my ears." Private Joo had played drums during his university days and he loved rock music.
After the incident, the army reportedly asked the family several times to conduct a funeral immediately and even hinted that their son might be eligible for the National Cemetery if things went quickly. Nevertheless, the family refused and requested an in-depth investigation that would look into the possibility of murder. "Our only hope is that one of the people who was on the same patrol comes forward and tells us what really happened." The family says that the odds are against them finding out what happened but they continue to try. The couple has visited each member of their son's platoon to question them repeatedly. Private Joo's mother, Kim Jong-suk, visited the home of So Han-gyu, who was in boot camp with Jung-wook and was on the same patrol with him that final morning. Jong-suk was surprised to find out that her son's army acquaintance had not mentioned the death to his own family. To Jong-suk, it seemed as if So Han-gyu had been told by someone never to talk about the incident.
Private Joo's parents eventually returned to Seoul, but came back to Goseong in April 2001. For a month the couple camped in a tent pitched in front of the 22d Infantry Division headquarters, protesting and demanding an investigation. The couple says the army threatened to drive over their tent with a truck. "We would lie down in front of the truck," remembers Jong-woo. "We had lost our son. What was there to lose?" After a couple days of threats, the police came and tried to remove Private Joo's parents. The couple agreed later on to move the tent to a nearby area. After that, heavy military trucks surrounded the tent's new site so no one could view it.
On April 3, 2002 Private Joo's parents finally held a funeral at an army hospital in Gangneung. It was the first time that Jung-wook's younger sister and only sibling, a 20-year-old college student, had visited near where her brother had died. Afterward, the body was cremated and the remains are now being held at an army base at Inje, Gangwon province, until the family decides where their son will be buried. Much of that decision is based on whether they find out what exactly happened to Jung-wook.
"We want to find out the truth and bury our son," Jong-suk says. "We don't care how long it will take. Five years, 10 years, we won't give up." Mr. Joo says that after 23 months of despair he decided to hold the funeral because looking at a cold, frozen body was taking its toll on family members, especially his wife.
In their quest for answers, Joo Jung-woo gave up the office job where he had worked for 21 years and has dedicated himself full-time to investigating his son's death. Together with others the couple has formed an organization called Gungahyeop, an organization that is dedicated to clearing up unsolved death cases like their son's and other incidents of violence in the army.
Recently, the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths ruled that the mysterious death 18 years ago of Private First Class Heo Won-geun was a homicide, not a suicide as reported. The commission ceased its activities last week after nearly two years of investigating suspicious death cases, such as Private Heo's. Still, however, it left many cases still unsolved.
Since the commission mostly investigated death cases that dealt with people who were involved in the democratization movement of the country in the 1980s, many death cases like Private Joo's were not undertaken by the panel.
However, the number of people who die every year in the army surely suggests that something should be done to clear up any doubt that people who died during their military service did indeed die from the cause the army has reported.
Whether the truth for the Joo family will appear is a question that the Joo family cannot answer. Sitting in the Myeong-dong office recently, Jung-wook appears filled with a deep bitterness.
"Right now, I deeply regret that I was born a Korean," he says. "I gave my son to the country but in return I got a dead body and no clear explanations."
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