Army Chief of Staff Gen. Kwon Oh-sung offered to resign Tuesday to take responsibility for the death of a soldier who died after allegedly being beaten by colleagues at their barracks.
The Army chief tendered a letter of resignation to Defence Minister Han Min-koo, the ministry's spokesman Kim Min-seok said. The defence minister has delivered Kwon's announcement to Cheong Wa Dae, he added.
"I apologise for causing the public concern over the recent incident that occurred in the Army," Kwon was quoted by Kim as saying.
The announcement came shortly after President Park Geun-hye urged military officials to carry out a thorough investigation into the soldier's death and called for severe punishment of those responsible.
"(We should) intensively investigate all inflictors and abettors involved in the case in order to punish those responsible as a warning to others," Park said during a weekly Cabinet meeting.
The remark came amid mounting criticism over several surfacing cases of abuse in the military.
A 23-year-old draftee, identified by the surname Yoon, died in April after being beaten by senior soldiers while they ate together.
He was found to have had suffered from physical and mental abuse since being dispatched a month earlier to the Army's 28th Division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province.
The president blasted the case, calling it a "deeply rooted and accumulated evil" and said such practices should be eradicated as part of the nationwide reform drive.
In June, an Army sergeant went on a shooting spree near the border with North Korea, killing five soldiers and wounding seven. He told investigators that he had been bullied by his comrades.
Park also ordered officials to probe fundamental problems and ill practices in the military and seek ways to improve life in the barracks.
Earlier in the day, the military prosecution secured a modification of the indictment after adding indecent assault charges against the five senior soldiers for forcing Yoon to apply to his genitals Antiphlamine, an anti-inflammatory ointment.
The prosecutor's office at the Defence Ministry said it had embarked on an additional probe into fresh allegations of physical, sexual and mental abuse. In line with growing public calls, it is looking into whether it could press murder charges against the offenders.
In the wake of Yoon's death, five draftees were indicted on manslaughter charges and one on assault charges. Investigators concluded that it would be difficult to prove the killing was deliberate because the suspects had performed CPR, called an ambulance and made other efforts to save Yoon after he stopped breathing, used no deadly weapons and did not target vulnerable spots on his body.
If murder charges are found infeasible, at least gross negligence can be applied, some lawmakers and activists argue.
"We are planning on extra, supplementary investigations including one into the application of murder charges," ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok told a news briefing.
Prosecutors may also additionally apply compulsion charges against the five for blocking Yoon from meeting with his visiting parents and attending religious ceremonies, while considering pressing charges of dereliction of duty against commanders in charge.
They are also expected to examine whether the Army made any attempt to conceal or play down the incident.
Sixteen Army executives have received punishment so far, ranging from dismissals and months-long suspensions to reprimands. But criticism persists that most of them were penalized too lightly and fundamental measures are needed to eradicate Army abuse.
"A special prosecutorial probe should be carried out to eradicate deep-rooted evil practices in the military," said Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a civic group in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, where a fourth trial for the case took place.
"There can't be proper punishment under a structure where a judge appointed by the division commander decides everything," Lim added. "We will pursue a legislative amendment or abolition concerning the military tribunal system."