KOREA - President Park Geun-hye called on the military to make all-out efforts to root out violence in the barracks, boost troop morale and shore up public trust during a meeting of top commanders at the Defence Ministry on Wednesday.
The meeting came the day after two Army soldiers were found dead in a Seoul apartment in an apparent double suicide and another died after shooting himself during a live-fire exercise. Abuses at their barracks are being cited as primary causes of their suicides.
"They are our comrades who would fight side by side in battle. They are also the sons of parents who were so anxiously waiting for them to return home safe and sound," Park said as she presided over the meeting.
"If anybody happens to break the hearts of these parents, we should hold him or her strictly responsible for that, regardless of their ranks."
Stressing the need for a revamp of the closed, rigid military culture, Park added that military commanders should ensure through various measures that young draftees are not seriously cut off from society.
"A sense of pride and willingness to serve for the nation will grow in the minds of draftees when they are respected and their individual rights are well protected. Then, we can expect them to exert their strong combat capabilities," said Park. "I ask you to come up with measures to prevent draftees from losing contact with society, including letter exchanges, leaves of absence and other means."
During the meeting, the Defence Ministry reported to Park a package of measures to improve outmoded military practices and strengthen troop discipline.
Among the measures was an incentive programme for those who inform commanding officers of any abuse taking place in their units. The military also plans to establish an online system through which bullied soldiers, their parents or their friends can file a complaint about violations of human rights in the military, by the end of this year.
The measures also included increasing the number of military human rights educators to 2,000 from the current 250; establishing a human rights monitoring group consisting of draftees, senior officials and parents; and toughening punitive measures for those guilty of abuse.
To legally back these efforts, the military decided to push for a basic military service law that bans conscripts from giving orders to one another and interfering in others' personal affairs.
The anti-abuse package also includes allowing soldiers working at general outposts to meet their parents visiting their border units. The military has not allowed the frontline soldiers to receive visitors, citing security reasons.
Under the package, the process of identifying those unfit for active duty will be streamlined. The process will be carried out in two steps, compared to the current four steps, officials explained.
To enhance psychological and psychiatric checkups for the draftees, the military will increase its number of psychological experts to 87 from the current 27 by 2016. The number of military psychiatrists will also increase to 27 from the current 15.
However, critics said the measures could turn out to be makeshift and might not help root out violence at barracks unless those at the top have a strong will to push for the measures from a long-term perspective.
Some argued that the measures were not very different from ones announced in the past. Others pointed out that efforts to secure sufficient funding for the measures should come first.