Shooting suspect and military in standoff
The suspect, identified by his surname Lim, stood facing troops at Myeongpa-ri, Goseong County, Gangwon, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from his outpost, where he went on a deadly rampage a day before that left five men dead and seven injured.
Lim, of the Army’s 22nd Infantry Division, fled the scene Saturday night with a K-2 rifle, 60 rounds of live ammunition and a grenade.
The fact that he was armed led the military to put all Army units in Goseong and its surrounding areas on highest alert.
According to the military, the sergeant and those pursuing him faced off at 2:17 p.m. yesterday, about 18 hours after the fatal incident. Lim opened fire at 2:23 p.m., which led to repeated exchanges of gunfire.
A platoon leader was shot in the arm during the melee. Lim’s parents were escorted by the military to the site of the gun battle, where they implored their 22-year-old son to drop his weapons and turn himself in. Special Forces and other military completely surrounded the suspect to block any exit ways and prevent his escape.
In a full-fledged manhunt, the military deployed helicopters to sweep mountainous areas and nine battalions around the eastern border town in its search. Authorities also set up a number of checkpoints. To convince him to surrender, the military broadcast recorded pleas from Lim’s father through speakers on helicopters and military vehicles.
After his shift on Saturday, Sergeant Lim threw a grenade and then opened fire on his fellow soldiers at around 8:15 p.m. in and around the barracks at the frontline General Outpost (GOP) in Goseong, killing five soldiers and injuring seven others.
According to Kim Min-seok, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Lim threw the grenade following the end of his shift and then fired multiple rounds with his K-2 rifle on his way into the building.
“Three people were killed outside of the barracks, while the two others were felled inside the barracks during the shooting spree,” an official at the Defense Ministry said.
Lim continued his rampage inside the barracks, where his comrades were unarmed and vulnerable to attack. Those outside of the barracks at the time of the incident had already turned in their weapons following the conclusion of their daily duties.
The official said that there were no casualties from the grenade blast and that Lim had fired 10 bullets.
Of the seven who were injured, none is in critical condition, though they all had either been shot or struck by shrapnel. Six of the seven have undergone surgeries at hospitals in Gangwon.
Staff Sergeant Kim, 23, two corporals, Jin, 21, and Lee, 20, and two privates, surnamed Choi, 23, and Kim, 21, were identified as the five killed. The Defense Ministry did not disclose their full names.
Sergeant Lim was tasked with patrolling the fence along the demilitarized zone facing the North in Goseong.
The incident Saturday came at a sensitive time for the nation, which is still reeling from the shock of the loss of nearly 300 lives, mostly high schools students on a school trip, in the Sewol ferry disaster in April.
The killings also raised questions about the military’s management of its soldiers, especially those who patrol the heavily militarized DMZ border.
The DMZ is two and a half miles wide and laden with land mines left from the 1950-53 Korean War. It spans the entire peninsula on the 38th parallel.
According to the Army, Lim enlisted in December 2012 after his freshman year in college and was assigned to the 22nd division in February 2013.
However, he was sidelined from performing patrols at the border in April last year following the outcome of a military-conducted personality test, which showed that he required special attention.
Lim’s test results put him in the highest Level A, indicating that he needed extra supervision and was mentally unfit to perform the border patrols. Level C is for those who just joined the Army less than four months ago or are deemed too weak to perform their duties.
But just seven months later, the sergeant was downgraded to Level B, which enabled him to perform border patrol duties, a task that carries a high risk. One military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Lim’s unit downgraded his personality assessment because he had shown improvement in his character in the time since.
Questions have also arisen over the timing of Lim’s rampage. He had less than three months until he was to be discharged from the military on Sept.16.
Among military formations, the 22nd Infantry Division is known for its strategic importance as a frontline unit in the far eastern part of the peninsula and the immense pressure on enlisted soldiers performing surveillance there.
Saturday’s shooting is the second such incident to hit the 22nd division in 30 years.
In 1984, a private by the name of Cho opened fire and blew up a grenade inside an Army barracks at Mount Geonbong in the eastern-frontline zone, leaving 15 dead and 11 injured. Cho then fled to the North.
“Compared to other divisions, [the 22nd Infantry Division] has had the higher number of North Korean spies that have infiltrated the South. And because it is also in charge of surveillance for the East Coast [in addition to the DMZ], the level of stress and pressure is higher than in other divisions,” a military official who formerly served in the division told the JoongAng Ilbo.
All able-bodied men in South Korea are required to serve in the military for 22 months.
The South technically remains at war with North Korea. In 1953, the two sides signed an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, that was intended to act as a cease-fire until a peaceful settlement could be reached.
BY KANG JIN-KYU, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]