( Source )
As I discussed back in March, the first ever survey on the issue of sexual violence in the Korean military discovered endemic levels of abuse, with roughly 15% of 250,000 conscripts each year experiencing it as either victims or perpetrators. A hugely important socialization experience for Korean men, this had grave implications for Korean society.
On a slight positive note however, I was happy to also read that much of the researchers’ data was obtained by interviews with soldiers in their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. A sign of changing attitudes towards acknowledging and dealing with the problem?
Alas, I’ve just discovered that that was far too optimistic, as the military still remains one of the least transparent institutions in Korea:
When the Cheonan sank [in March], the initial reaction was shock and sadness, which quickly gave way to rage: with a government accused of dragging its feet, but also with a military that seemed unprepared for a North Korean attack.
But anger with the military runs deeper than over a single event. Mistrust of the institution is widespread because it has failed to open itself up, using the excuse of national security, while the rest of the country has embraced democracy.
South Korea’s military dictatorship may be a thing of the past, but the North’s constant saber rattling in the form of nuclear tests, missile launches, spy incidents and the occasional skirmish continue to give Korea’s men at arms an immediate relevance – and an excuse to conceal things from the public. That right to secrecy is enshrined in the National Security Law, which places restrictions even on regular citizens’ freedom of speech for the sake of preventing enemy subversion, but is even more of a cloak for the armed forces. It’s the legal manifestation of the bubble in which the military operates, isolating it from the massive changes the rest of Korean society has undergone. To date, for example, no civilian has ever been named defense minister.
Every year, a report is quietly released titled, “Military deaths caused by accidents.” In 2008, there were 134 names on that list, including 75 suicides. The suicides are usually explained by a “failure to adjust to military life.”
That explanation is unacceptable for Joo Jong-woo, whose son, Pvt. Joo Jung-wook, committed suicide in 2001 at age 22…
Read the rest at The JoongAng Ilbo, including about “its emphasis on tight ideological control of its conscripts” resulting in its banning of left-wing books like the works of Noam Chomsky, and the expulsion of military legal officers for “arguing that the military’s regulations are unconstitutional”. Meanwhile, the Korean military still refuses to recognize conscientious objectors and so imprisons them (see here also for a podcast on the development of the concept of conscientious objection in the West), the National Human Rights Commission is ineffective, and the maintenance of the conscription system as a whole is one reason why the Korean Military remains “a 1970-vintage force structure, designed around a 1970-vintage threat, equipped with 1970-vintage weapons.”
( Source: anja_johnson )
As for the images of mascots, please note that I post them not to be facetious though(!), but rather to show how facile such attempts to soften the image of institutions like the police and military are in light of reports like this. But nothing against the mascots themselves of course, and see here, here, and here for more information about Podori (포도리) in the riot gear!^^
Update, October 2010: Unfortunately, this recent incident demonstrates that little progress has been made since this post was written.