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Mission should continue to uncover truth behind 39,000 military deaths: panel head

Independent panel launched under Moon administration set to disband in September

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Aug. 2, 2023 - 15:17

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Chairman of the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military, Song Ki-choon, speaks to the media during a news conference held on Wednesday in Seoul. (Photo - Yonhap) Chairman of the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military, Song Ki-choon, speaks to the media during a news conference held on Wednesday in Seoul. (Photo - Yonhap)

The South Korean government must continue its investigation into around 39,000 incidents where the cause of death during military service remains unclear and conclusively determine whether these individuals died in the line of duty, the chairman of a presidential committee looking into the issue said Wednesday.

"Even now, there are individuals who passed away while serving in the military and have not received proper recognition and benefits. The reality is that there are still around 39,000 such cases," Chairman of the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military, Song Ki-choon, said during a news conference in Seoul.

"Upon our investigation, we have found as many as 13,000 cases of self-inflicted deaths that appear to be directly linked to military service. Regrettably, the deaths of these individuals have not been adequately investigated or clarified."

The total number of personnel who have died while serving in the military amounts to more than 230,000 since the establishment of the South Korean armed forces in 1948.

But among the 74,674 personnel who were concluded as passing away due to accidents, illness, suicide and other non-combatant reasons during military service as of September 2018, 39,436 individuals were not classified as having died in the line of duty, according to data provided by South Korea's Defense Ministry.

When a soldier is classified as having died in the line of duty, they become eligible for national recognition as a national merit awardee, and their families are entitled to compensation. However, if they are not, their families do not receive any special benefits from the government.

The previous Moon Jae-in government established the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military in 2018 intending to investigate cases where there are significant reasons to doubt the cause of death during military service.

But the commission's operations are based on the Special Act On Ascertaining The Truth Of Military Accidents Resulting In Death, and its term ends in September 2023.

The committee has completed investigations into 1,787 cases brought forward by the families of those who died under unclear circumstances or by individuals who possess special knowledge about the incidents. The committee has also concluded investigations into 53 out of the 66 cases initiated by the committee itself.

"I'd like to raise the question of whether it is appropriate to halt the investigation into the truth behind deaths during military duties, where proper honor and benefits have not been given to around 39,000 individuals," Song told reporters.

"The commission's tenure is coming to an end, but it is crucial to emphasize that the investigation of these deaths must persist, whether the commission is extended through a bill in the National Assembly or not."

A bill to extend the committee's investigation was introduced by members of the National Assembly in May, but there has been no progress on it since then.

Song underscored that the military-led investigations into deaths of personnel during military service raise serious concerns about procedural fairness and constitute a violation of due process of law under the constitution.

To address these concerns, Song suggested that an independent body should be tasked with conducting the investigation fairly and impartially. He expressed hope that the Yoon Suk Yeol government would give the green light to extend the period of committee operation.

Song also pointed out that the military authorities have a track record of fabricating the reasons for the deaths of soldiers for their own interests. In the past, soldiers were falsely accused of taking their own lives due to personal reasons, such as trouble with their family or relationships.

"Even if we consider the personal reasons as truths, it does not necessarily imply that the same outcome of self-inflicted death would have occurred had those individuals not been in the military," Song said.

"The military environment can be isolating for many soldiers, leading to a lack of communication with others and exacerbating personal issues due to various unique circumstances."

In South Korea, all able-bodied male citizens are required by law to serve in the military for at least 18 months between ages 18 and 35.

But before Pfc. Yoon's high-profile death due to assault and Sgt. Lim's shooting incident in 2014, physical abuse such as beatings by senior soldiers was widespread within the military. This aspect was depicted in Netflix's military service bullying drama "D.P."

"In light of these factors, it is essential to emphasize that any death occurring during mandatory military service, regardless of how minor it may appear on a personal level, cannot be regarded as completely unrelated to the military," Song added.

Song emphasized the need for more efficient and uniform investigations, with the premise that such deaths are almost always connected to military service. The South Korean government should conduct these investigations in favor of the families of the deceased and strive to restore the reputation of those who passed away during military service.