A group of some 1,000 single parents are protesting against the Defence Ministry's "soldier observation" programme, after it was revealed that children from single-parent households are automatically put in the system regardless of their social skills and mental health.
The programme began in 2009 to protect soldiers who may have difficulty adjusting to military life while serving their mandatory duty. Those who are under close watch include soldiers who are mentally unstable, including those who have attempted suicide or show violent behaviour.
The single parents learned about the programme's policy for their children in the wake of the recent shooting spree by an army sergeant who was under the same observation system in the military. The 22-year-old, surnamed Lim, killed five soldiers last month.
While soldiers with mental health problems belong to group A ― the group under the most observation ― those from single-parent households belong to group B, along with soldiers with personality disorders and those in poverty, defined as those who qualify for the basic living allowance from the government. Sergeant Lim also belonged to B group, whose members are allowed to carry out frontline service while still in need of extra attention.
Soldiers who are gay, physically weak, or who have spent less than 100 days in the military belong to group C, which requires the least attention among the three groups.
Jeon Young-soon, the head of the Korean Single Parents' Union, said soldiers in the observation programme may be stigmatised as problematic individuals, while one's upbringing in a single-parent or poor household should not be considered a "problem" that requires attention while serving in the military.
"This is a violation of human rights," she told The Korea Herald.
"The programme is based on the discriminatory notion that a single-parent family is not a 'normal' family, and therefore has problems and its members may cause trouble."
Col. Wee Yong-sub, a Defence Ministry deputy spokesman, said the ministry was in the process of changing the observation programme regarding children from single-parent and poor households.
"The programme started with a good intention ― to give extra care to soldiers who are in need ― but we understand that it may have not worked the way we initially planned it to," he told The Korea Herald.
Jeon said the members of her organisation would take turns holding a single-person protest in front of the Defence Ministry building until the end of July.