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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 July, 2005, 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK
South Koreans baulk at boot camp

By Charles Scanlon
BBC News, Seoul

It was enlistment day at South Korea's largest army boot camp, and the barber shops clustered at the entrance were doing good business.

Twenty-year-old student Park Tae-min had left it to the last moment to get his long hair shaved into a military crew cut.

South Korean relatives of one of the soldiers killed in a shooting rampage cry beside the coffin during a joint funeral service at a military hospital in Sungnam, 25 June 2005
A soldier who was bullied shot eight of his colleagues last month
Like most of the 800 conscripts beginning their service that day, he was more than a little apprehensive.

"There have been so many reports of violence against new recruits," he said. "My generation has been pampered while growing up and we'll find it hard to take the physical and verbal abuse you seem to get in the military".

Just the week before, a private at a front line guard-post went on a bloody rampage with grenades and a machine gun, killing eight of his comrades.

He later told investigators he had been bullied by his superiors. The army concluded that he was a misfit who had been unable to adjust to the demands of military life.

Human rights

In the days that followed, dozens of photographs came to light showing the abuse and humiliation of young conscripts - some forced to pose naked in the snow.

A picture of the scene of the shooting spree, Thursday, June 23, 2005.
The conditions in barracks are far from luxurious
At the Nonsan recruitment centre, Park Tae-min and the other conscripts were called onto the parade ground and ordered to attention by their drill sergeants, as their parents looked on from the stands.

In his address, the camp commander told them that times had changed and the army would respect their human rights.

But living conditions in most barracks remain Spartan, with conscripts often sleeping packed together on the floor. The conditions are little changed from the 1970s, when South Korea was a much poorer country under military dictatorship.

Many of the mothers were in tears as their sons were marched off for their two years of national service.

"After the latest killings, I really didn't want to send my son to the military - I just hope in the long run it will do him some good," said Kim Su-jin, who had just said good-bye to her only son.

Many South Koreans have ambivalent feelings about military service. Some still see it as rite of passage that turns boys into men. But others complain they wasted two years of their lives, when they could have been preparing for their careers.

The need to maintain a 600,000-strong conscript army is increasingly being questioned, at a time when the government is portraying North Korea more as an economic partner rather than a military threat.

Colonial roots

The recent scandals have further undermined respect for the military.

South Korean marine soldiers have cold endurance training during military exercises on January 20, 2005 in Heonggye, South Korea
Training is tough - here soldiers prepare for snowy conditions
"The military has its roots in the Japanese colonial period and the years of military dictatorship that followed," said Lee Jong-ho, who heads an advocacy group that represents those who lost sons during their military service.

Mr Lee blames the military for the death of his own son, whom he says was accused of malingering and given inadequate treatment after falling ill.

He says the greatest problem is the large number of suicides by young recruits, more than 60 a year.

"The suicides are a symptom of evil practices - a culture of violence designed to break the spirit of new conscripts. It starts among senior officers and then filters down through the ranks," he said.

"The military has been covering up so long, it's impossible to find the truth about suicides."

Period of transition

The army insists that it is changing with the times, and will not tolerate physical or verbal abuse of juniors. It says it has to be sensitive to the needs of a better educated and more affluent generation.

A bronze statue of soldiers at the Korean war Memorial in Seoul, 24 June 2005.
South Korea's military is currently in a state of flux
But Lieutenant-Colonel Park Dong-hwa, the officer in charge of the Nonsan centre, said today's conscripts did present the army with a challenge.

"Ten years ago the soldiers would follow any orders without question," he said.

"Nowadays they have to be encouraged in the right way to work well - if they don't like something they sometimes get smart with their superiors."

This is a time of transition for the South Korean military. The government is proposing an increase in spending to promote a more independent defence policy as the United States scales back its military presence in the country.

There is talk of building a more professional and better equipped force that would deter North Korea's million-man army with technology rather than weight of numbers.

The conscript army, backed by US military power, was once the unquestioned bedrock of national defence.

But questions about the state of morale, the treatment of conscripts and levels of competence have seriously undermined public confidence.

Eight troops die in Korea rampage
19 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea's shock at US troop cuts
08 Jun 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: South Korea
03 Jun 05 |  Country profiles

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