SOUTH KOREA: Presidential commission must be allowed to continue investigations into suspicious military deaths

Due to its maintenance of a conscription system, South Korea’s military has long been plagued with ill-treatment, resulting in trauma and even suicide for the individuals concerned. After several years of civil society struggle, a law enabling the investigation of suspicious deaths in the military was finally passed, establishing a presidential commission to begin its work on January 1, 2006 for a three-year period. The commission has reportedly received 600 complaints to date, of which only 295 have been settled. Thirty-nine men were found to have committed suicide due to assault and ill-treatment in the military. An estimated 103 cases are of complaints already inquired into by the ministry of defence, indicating the lack of trust of that agency by victims’ families. If the commission’s tenure is not expanded, the remainder of the cases are to be transferred to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where non-experts face an impossible investigative task due to their lack of resources.

In fact, in the interests of efficiency, the South Korean government has decided that all the commissions working in the country at present should be abolished, with their workload passed to the single Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And yet, the government has not elaborated on any measures to ensure the efficacy and effectiveness of this Commission. Furthermore, the ministry of defence has been accused of non-cooperation with . It is likely that without the expertise and authority of the presidential commission, the non-cooperation will only get worse. This will provide impunity to military officers who have meted out cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to their subordinates, sometimes resulting in their deaths, particularly to conscripted youth.

Assault and ill-treatment within the conscription system, whether in the military, the auxiliary police or the battle police, is a well known practice. Only those strong enough to endure the ill-treatment and those who remain silent are able to survive and return to society. Some individuals choose to commit crimes in revenge for the abuse they suffer. The lack of an independent unit to investigate such abuse, as well as the lack of protection for those who witness any abuse, not only prevents justice from being served, but it also hampers the eradication of ill-treatment from the military.

Prior to the establishment of the presidential commission, the defence ministry would investigate into any incident of abuse without informing the victim or his family of its progress. It was common for investigation reports to justify the assault or ill-treatment on the grounds that the victim encouraged it. Explanations for suicides would include personal faults, service avoidance, absence of will to complete service, or family circumstances. While the government adopts a conscription system that ignores differences in individuals, when things go wrong the blame is placed solely on individuals. Any government responsibility disappears and family members are left to deal with the trauma of losing loved ones.

The establishment of the presidential commission was a source of great hope to those who struggled against military impunity for many years. By failing to expand its tenure and establish an impartial investigation system, the government will be sending the message that it is not interested in protecting and promoting human rights. It will also be guilty of violating its obligations to provide effective remedies to victims and their families under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to remind the government of South Korea of its failed attempt to put the National Human Rights Commission under presidential control earlier this year due to national and international alarm. As a democratic nation concerned with human rights principles, South Korea must ensure that all cases of suspicious military deaths are thoroughly and impartially investigated, and provide justice to the victims. This requires the establishment of an independent investigation mechanism not belonging to the ministry of defence as well as the necessary witness protection system. In order to retain the conscription system the government must be able to demonstrate accountability, lest young conscripts are victimised while serving. If not, it would be more efficient–as the government claims to want to be–to adopt a voluntary system of military service.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-295-2008-2
Countries : South Korea,