SEOUL: South Korea’s military outlined measures yesterday to curb barrack-room bullying, following a series of incidents and suicides involving young soldiers serving in isolated frontline units.
The defence ministry said it would offer incentives and rewards for whistle-blowers who report any physical and verbal abuse in barracks, while toughening up penalties for those responsible.
At the same time an online system will be set up for soldiers who need it to seek help, and parents whose sons serve at outposts near the heavily fortified border with North Korea will be allowed to visit their children.
The ministry also said the process of sorting out draftees who are unfit for active duty would be shortened through strengthened personality tests and evaluation.
South Korea’s armed forces rely heavily on compulsory military service, with conscripts -- mostly in their early 20s -- accounting for the lion’s share of its 690,000 active personnel.
But barrack-room bullying has tainted the system and been blamed for numerous suicides and incidents where conscripts have turned their weapons on their comrades.
On Tuesday the ministry confirmed the deaths of three conscripts in apparent suicides, including two corporals from the 28th Infantry Division who hanged themselves together at one of their homes while on leave.
The three had all been on watch due to concerns over their mental stability.
Five soldiers in the same 28th division were arrested last month on manslaughter charges over the death of a 23-year-old private.
An enquiry showed the private had been regularly bullied and physically abused. He died during one beating when he was struck in the chest and a chunk of food became lodged in his airway.
In June, a 22-year-old sergeant opened fire on his barrack mates, killing five and wounding seven.
The sergeant -- also listed as a soldier requiring special observation -- later told investigators that he had been humiliated and constantly mocked. Two army privates from the same division, also listed as mentally vulnerable, committed suicide later in the same month.