Rampage spotlights arduous DMZ postings

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Rampage spotlights arduous DMZ postings

Mrs. Choi Yeon-sook is getting increasingly worried about her son, who is scheduled to join the Army in August to fulfill his mandatory military service. The cause of her worries isn’t hard to guess: last weekend’s shooting rampage in a frontline unit that left five solders dead and seven injured. The shooter, a 22-year-old sergeant with only three months left in his service, fled the scene and unsuccessfully attempted suicide Monday.

“We are going through this tragedy again seven years after the shooting rampage in 2005,” said the worried mother, referring to an incident at a frontline post in Gyeonggi in which a private fatally shot eight fellow soldiers and seriously injured two others.

“Through whatever means I can find,” Choi says, “I want to have my son avoid serving in a frontline [general outpost or general post].”

These are the postings that young conscripts - and their families - dread the most. General outposts (GOPs) are military camps on the border of the demilitarized zone, while general posts (GPs) are actually inside the South Korean part of the DMZ. Soldiers doing 90 day details in GPs are technically called policemen because soldiers are not allowed inside the DMZ as per the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Duties in the GOPs include patrolling the border fences. In GPs, soldiers look for signs of enemy infiltration or ambushes.

Given the high-stakes of the missions, men stationed at frontline outposts suffer from isolation, sleep deprivation, cabin fever and high level of tension day and night.

“The first thing you feel once you step into a GP or GOP is a sense of isolation from the world,” said Kim, a 31-year-old office worker who was a first lieutenant at a frontline outpost in Hwacheon County, Gangwon.

“I developed depression during my service there because I encountered the same thing over and over again everyday, like seeing the same faces all the time.”

The isolation is particularly acute for those at GPs because they are in a virtual no man’s land laden with landmines left from the 1950-53 Korean War. Facing enemy soldiers who are merely a few hundred meters away, or a couple of kilometers at the most, adds to the ceaseless tensions.

One platoon is assigned to every GP and the only route to get in or out of the DMZ is a supply line. The rotations for GP units are every three months, during which unit members are banned from leaving their posts.

“If there is a sexual assault problem, a solder inside the GP has to wait until his rotation period comes to get away from the problem,” said Youn Sung-min, 35, who served at a GP in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi.

“If a lower-rank guy does not get along with a superior in such a closed and isolated outpost,” he continued, “he is much more susceptible to a suicidal act than he would be outside of the GP.”

Aware of the heavy emotional and physical cost, the Defense Ministry once considered giving special treatment to those who serve at frontline outposts, like shortening their military service by a couple of months. But it dropped the idea over fairness issues.

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 serve as a cease-fire until a peaceful settlement could be reached.

BY JUNG WON-YEOB, KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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