Under mounting pressure from the public and lawmakers, the Army said Monday it would consider pressing murder charges against soldiers who bullied a junior colleague who died after suffering physical and mental abuse.
The 23-year-old draftee, identified by his surname Yoon, died on April 7 after being beaten by senior soldiers while they ate together. He was found to have suffered from physical and mental abuse since being dispatched a month earlier to the Army's 28th Division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province.
The military prosecution has since indicted five service members on manslaughter charges and one on assault charges.
Defence Minister Han Min-koo offered a public apology later in the day. At an earlier parliamentary session, he called the case "impossible in the 21st century's civilized society."
"I believe that military discipline and troop safety can coexist," Han said. "I will carry out an additional investigation, root out structural problems and take necessary steps, while concentrating on refurbishing the military culture."
Suspicions have grown recently that the Army had attempted to downplay or cover up the newest case for the past few months. Yoon was initially reported to have died after his senior colleagues struck his chest as they ate dumplings together, blocking his airway and resulting in brain damage.
Despite rising calls for the sacking of the Army's top brass, Cheong Wa Dae expressed skepticism, saying fact-finding is a "priority" for the time being.
"The focus should be on formulating a system in which (such an incident) does not occur again and parents can send their children to the military without fear," presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told a news briefing.
Lawmakers and activists have also called for the offenders to be charged with murder after fresh abuse allegations emerged.
"If this is the public opinion, we will do a review," Brig. Gen. Kim Heung-suk, the Army's chief of legal affairs, said at a parliamentary session.
"The prosecution will request a delay of the trial and have senior prosecutors go over records to see if a modification of the indictment is possible. The military prosecution is making its utmost efforts so that cruel offenders will be held accountable," Kim added.
But the decision triggered controversy over its legitimacy and efficacy. As Kim reconfirmed, the prosecution had intended to apply murder charges initially but concluded that it would be difficult to prove the death was deliberate.
Yoon's case rekindled a public furor as the latest in a series of gruesome incidents that prompted the military to repeatedly pledge to wipe out violence at barracks and reform its outdated culture.
Military authorities said they have revealed some 3,900 incidents of physical and mental abuse in Army barracks in April alone, and punished the offenders.
Last month, two privates who were on the Army's watch list for extra care separately committed suicide for unspecified reasons. In June, a bullied Army sergeant who was also on the list staged a shooting spree at his 22nd Infantry Division, killing five and injuring seven others.