Spate of South Korean army deaths sparks safety concerns


South Korean marines taking part in the multi-nation Cobra Gold military exercises in the Thai province of Chonburi on March 1. - PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN): Recent casualties in the South Korean military, including the deaths of two army conscripts at boot camps, have prompted calls for a re-evaluation of the safety of soldiers in a country where all able-bodied men are required to serve.

On May 28, 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 on May 25, 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 deg C when he arrived at the hospital,” claimed Mr Lim Tae-hoon, head of the civic group Centre for Military Human Rights Korea, on a radio broadcast on May 28.

Lim said 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 septicaemia – blood poisoning caused by bacteria – although the autopsy results are yet to be released.

On the day of the incident, at around 5pm in Inje, the air temperature was recorded as 27.4 deg C.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it may be the first case of a heat-related death in 2024.

“The soldier who recently died during the training exercise is presumed to have died from a heat-related illness,” officials from the agency noted, 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 within a 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 city.

According to the military authorities, while the trainee was later pronounced dead at the nearby military hospital, the master sergeant overseeing the training had non-life-threatening wounds.

In another incident on May 23 at the Ministry of National Defence in Seoul’s Yongsan district, a field officer in his 40s lost consciousness during a 3km run as part of a physical fitness test.

After receiving immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he regained consciousness and is now being treated at a hospital.

Most recently, on May 27, a low-ranking officer from the 21st Infantry Division in Yanggu county, Gangwon province, was found dead in his car, marking the third military death within a week.

As at May 28, the exact cause of the officer’s death is still under investigation.

These incidents involving military personnel have sparked a public backlash regarding the military’s management of its personnel’s health and safety.

The Centre for Military Human Rights Korea has called for thorough investigations to verify the exact circumstances of the incidents and determine whether there were any violations of military regulations and supervision.

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

Defence Minister Shin Won-sik emphasised on May 24 the importance of prioritising the safety of conscripted soldiers, whom he described as “the foundation of military power”.

He also highlighted the role of field commanders in identifying risk factors and preparing safety measures. -- The Korea Herald/ANN

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