Minister, Army chief apologize for soldier’s death

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Minister, Army chief apologize for soldier’s death

The military faces accusations of trying to cover up the details of the death of a Korean Army private of the 28th Division who faced systemic abuse by fellow soldiers that led to his death in April. During questioning by members of the Assembly’s National Defense Committee, Defense Minister Han Min-koo and his senior staff were grilled about discrepancies in the Army’s descriptions of how the private died. The private has been identified only by his surname Yun.

Yoon Hoo-deok, an opposition lawmaker on the committee, said to Han, “[Yun’s] death was reported as an accident while he was eating. This was clearly a report that was a cover-up.”

Han apologized to the committee and later repeated that apology to the public at a press conference. He also said the Defense Ministry’s prosecutors would conduct further investigations into the matter, including charges made by a human rights group, and would transfer jurisdiction of the case from the 28th Division to the Third Army.

The belated steps to seek justice for the 23-year-old Army conscript and put measures in place to prevent a recurrence of such as case in Army barracks in the future have begun, three months after Yun’s death. The details of the systemic mental and physical abuse faced by Yun at the hands of more senior soldiers was revealed to the public only last week.

According to a report submitted yesterday by the Ministry of National Defense to the National Assembly, after the private collapsed on the afternoon of April 6, the Army’s command and control center was first notified that Yun “lost consciousness while eating.” But later that evening, an accurate report was sent to the control center that Yun’s death was the result of a beating by senior soldiers.

The following day, military police of the 28th Division questioned the suspected soldiers in detail on how Yun was beaten, the report said.

On May 2, military prosecutors indicted six of the suspects for involuntary manslaughter and included details of how other soldiers forced Yun to eat toothpaste and beat him nightly, among other abuses. Three rounds of Army judicial hearings have been held since May 22.

But military authorities have been slammed for informing the media that the young private had died of asphyxiation when food blocked his airway after he was hit by senior soldiers, without specifying the details of the daily physical and mental abuse.

Then, the Center for Military Human Rights, an NGO, raised the issue of Yun’s treatment last Thursday, and the Ministry of National Defense confirmed the details the next day.

The case - which recalls similar issues of bullying and violence in the barracks encouraged or at least tolerated by leaders - strikes a chord with the general public because all able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 face compulsory military service.

“Private Yun’s mother sought us out and cried her heart out,” said Lim Tae-hun, the head of the human rights center, in a radio interview with CBS yesterday.

Lim said Yun’s mother had told him, “I should have pretended to be crazy and gone to him. If I had gone, I would have seen my son’s bruises and raised the issue [with the authorities].”

Lim added, “[Yun’s] mother showed regret, wondering if she had been at fault.”

Lim said that there was a sports competition after Yun was deployed with the unit, open to parents of the conscripted soldiers. “But a Sgt. Lee, who wielded imperialistic control, claimed Yun was short of ‘mileage points’ and blocked Yun’s parents from attending.”

Sgt. Lee, 27, was one of the soldiers indicted by military prosecutors for involuntary manslaughter.

Kwon Oh-sung, the Army’s chief of staff, also told the Assembly meeting he took responsibility and pledged to eradicate fraternal violence in the Army.

“In the beginning, the soldiers intentionally tried to conceal [the incident] and we had to announce what we knew,” Kwon said in response to allegations that the military tried to conceal the cause of Yun’s death.

The defense committee said it planned to visit the 28th Division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi, today to confirm the details of the case.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]






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