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Spate of Army deaths sparks safety concerns

Army ranks face police investigation for fatal disciplinary session

By No Kyung-min

Published : May 28, 2024 - 15:39

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(Getty images) (Getty images)

Recent casualties in the South Korean military, including the deaths of two Army conscripts at boot camps, have prompted calls for a reevaluation of the safety of soldiers in a country where all able-bodied men are required to serve.

On Tuesday, two military officers were referred to the police in connection with the death of a trainee soldier last week who collapsed while being disciplined at a boot camp in Inje, Gangwon Province.

According to Gangwon police and local reports, the victim, who died Saturday two days after collapsing, was a 21-year-old who had enlisted just nine days prior.

“The collapsed soldier's body temperature reached 40.5 degrees Celsius when he arrived at the hospital,” claimed Lim Tae-hoon, head of the civic group Military Human Rights Center, while appearing on a radio broadcast Tuesday.

He argued that the disciplinary session, which involved six soldiers running laps around the grounds fully equipped with their gear, was over "some noise at night" made by them.

The victim’s cause of death is reported as septicemia, although the autopsy results are yet to be released.

On the day of the incident, around 5:00 p.m. in Inje, the air temperature was recorded at 27.4 degrees Celsius.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said he may be the first case of a heat-related death this year. "The soldier who recently died during the training exercise is presumed to have died from a heat-related illness," officials from the agency noted while adding that this is still an "assumption" and the circumstances are subject to change as more information becomes available.

The conscript’s death is part of a series of casualties South Korea’s military has reported in the space of one week.

On May 21, a grenade explosion killed a new conscript in his 20s and injured a master sergeant during a training session at the Army's 32nd Infantry Division in Sejong. According to military authorities, while the trainee was pronounced dead later at the nearby military hospital, the master sergeant who commanded the training sustained non-life-threatening wounds.

Another collapsing incident occurred on Thursday at the Ministry of National Defense in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, where a field officer in his 40s lost consciousness during a 3-kilometer run as part of a physical fitness test. After receiving immediate CPR, he regained consciousness and is currently being treated at a hospital.

Most recently, on Monday, a low-rank officer from the 21st Infantry Division in Yanggu-gun, Gangwon Province, was found dead in his car Monday, marking the third military death within a week. As of Tuesday, the exact cause of the officer’s death is still under investigation.

These incidents involving military personnel have sparked public backlash regarding the military's neglectful management of its personnel's health and safety. The Center for Military Human Rights Korea has called for thorough investigations to verify the exact circumstances and determine whether there were any violations of military regulations and supervision.

While issuing apologies to the bereaved families, military authorities stated that they are working with police to investigate the exact cause of the accidents.

Defense Minister Shin Won-sik emphasized Friday the importance of prioritizing the safety of conscripted soldiers, who he described as "the foundation of military power." He also highlighted the role of field commanders in identifying risk factors and preparing safety measures.