South Korea moves to address sexual abuse in military, improve living conditions

SEOUL – South Korea has launched a task force to improve systems in the military for preventing sexualassault, amid growing public concern over such cases including one that had led to suicide.

Launched on Monday (Jun 7), the task force is set to thoroughly review how the military handles sexual assaults and come up with measures to improve the military’s organisational culture, ensure transparency in investigations, and better protect and support victims.

A Defence Ministry official was cited as saying they will “make efforts to establish a military culture safe from sexual abuses”.

This came after President Moon Jae-in vowed to reform the military and remove the “backward culture in the barracks that led to an unfortunate death”.

The recent suicide of a female Air Force officer caused a huge uproar in South Korea, prompting Air Force chief Lee Seong-yong to resign last week and Defence Minister Suh Wook to apologise on Wednesday (Jun 9).

The officer was found dead on May 22, about three months after she was sexually assaulted in a car by a colleague and pressured to settle and cover up the matter.

The culprit was arrested last week on charges of sexual assault and causing injury.

Bullying and other forms of abuse have long plagued South Korea’s military, leading to suicides and fatal shootings.

Rights group Military Human Rights Korea has exposed many incidents, including a recent one in which a male staff sergeant in the Air Force broke into barracks for female officers to take illicit photos of them.

Political science professor Park Hwi-rak of Kookmin University said male officers working alongside female counterparts are not properly educated about what constitutes sexual abuse. He said a standard protocol on dealing with sexual issues within the military should be introduced as a countermeasure to prevent more tragic outcomes.

All able-bodied South Korean men aged between 18 and 28 must serve national service for about 18 months, and some have highlighted the shock that the sudden change can have on young men.

Finance executive Kim Jin-ho, 30, told The Straits Times that newly-enlisted soldiers have a lot of anxiety. He said: “Overnight, we have to follow strict rules that didn’t exist before in our life, and this can result in mental and physical abuse of others.

“Hierarchy within the army is not so severe now but it’s still not a good atmosphere because it is a closed space with only men.”

Poor living conditions for enlisted men have also come under fire, with the military accused of giving substandard food and low quality clothes to soldiers, as well as subjecting them to excessive quarantine measures.

Complaints surfaced in April when officers posted anonymously about their plight, with one saying he was so happy to get two pieces of braised fish for his meal until one was removed from his tray because of a rule stating men should get just “one piece of meat each”. Other items on his tray were rice, spicy vegetable soup and seven cherry tomatoes.

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The food budget for soldiers is just 2,930 won (S$3.50) per meal – lower than the 3,625 won school lunch provided free for high school students.

The ensuing public outcry led to Defence Minister Suh’s apology and the launch of an inter-agency task force to review the issue and come up with plans to improve food and living conditions in the barracks.

The budget for military meals will be increased to 10,000 won from July, the Defence Ministry said last week.

Job seeker Kim Jin-kyu, 28, recalled eating grilled fish, bulgogi (grilled beef), soybean paste stew and gundaeria (army burger) when serving in the army. But he said the meals were “always insufficient” so he had to go buy snacks and instant food to fill his stomach.

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“It’s important for us to have good meals because we have been training all day,” he said. “Mealtime is a break for us and we will feel dissatisfied if the food is not good.”

Former special forces commander Jeon In-beom was cited by Chosun Ilbo newspaper on June 2 as saying that the country needs to invest more in barrack facilities so soldiers can train and rest properly.

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