President Moon Jae-in effectively instructed the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to reconsider its decision on veteran entitlements accorded to retired Sgt. 1st Class Ha Jae-heon, who lost both legs in blasts from North Korean land mines.
“I hope the ministry will examine if there is leeway to interpret related legal provisions flexibly,” Moon said Tuesday.
On Aug. 7, the Patriots and Veterans Entitlement Commission of the ministry decided to grant veteran eligibility to Ha as a discharged service member injured on duty, not in battle.
When the decision was revealed by news media Tuesday, it sparked controversy as to whether his wound was assessed fairly.
On Aug. 4, 2015, two soldiers triggered land mines in front of a South Korean gate to the Demilitarized Zone. The mines contained in wooden boxes exploded as they opened the gate in the barbed-wire fence to begin a patrol in the zone. Ha, then a staff sergeant, lost both legs, and another staff sergeant lost one leg.
Military investigators concluded that the mines had been planted by North Korean soldiers to target South Korean DMZ reconnaissance troops. Ha was discharged on Jan. 31.
Wounds sustained in battle mean service members were injured engaging in combat or in the combat-like call of duty, while wounds suffered on duty mean service members were injured performing noncombat duties or during military exercises or education.
The DMZ is a high-security area where skirmishes, or battles, between South and North Korean reconnaissance soldiers can happen. South Korean soldiers reconnoiter the zone to check whether North Korean soldiers have infiltrated the southern side. It is not a site for military drills.
Ha was disabled by land mines planted by an enemy to maim South Korean soldiers, so it is fair to recognize his wound as one sustained in battle.
The commission’s decision amounts to a denial of the fact that Ha was injured by North Korean land mines. It gives the impression that the ministry stands by the North, which clearly planted the mines but denies doing so.
The Army recognized Ha’s wound as one suffered in battle, but the Veterans Ministry downgraded it to one sustained on duty. The commission cites that the ministry’s related act has no provisions regarding “wounds caused by dangerous objects installed by the enemy.”
But the ministry had recognized wounds sustained by surviving soldiers of the Cheonan when the naval corvette was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine in 2010 as those sustained in battle.
This incident does not differ from the land mine blasts in that they were caused by North Korean provocations in the course of South Korean reconnaissance and patrol operations. The ministry’s decisions on Ha and Cheonan is not fair.
The head of the commission told a local newspaper that land mines are different from torpedoes. He noted the absence of a concrete provision regarding wounds due to land mines.
This sounds like sophistry to disguise the obvious North Korean provocation as a fortuitous accident. It is an insult not only to Ha, but to all soldiers here.
The Veterans Ministry under Moon wanted to decorate Kim Won-bong, who entered the North voluntarily and received a medal from the country’s founder Kim Il-sung for his contributions during the Korean War. Moon mentioned Kim as the root of the South Korean armed forces.
The ministry also granted benefits as an independence fighter to a ruling party lawmaker’s late father whose eligibility as a man of merits had been rejected six times due to his suspected espionage for the North.
Moon has not mentioned the Korean War at all in his address marking Memorial Day for three straight years.
Cheong Wa Dae invited survivors of the Cheonan attack and naval clashes with North Korea on the West Sea and their families to a luncheon, where it distributed brochures with photos showing off Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holding hands. Participants felt slighted.
One of the primary responsibilities of the government is to uphold the honor of service members who sacrificed themselves for the country. The most important job for the Veterans Ministry is to provide them the proper benefits and compensation.
Who will devote their life to the country’s defense if their service is not honored righteously?