Conscripted policemen fill out sheets reporting whether they have been assaulted or harassed by their senior officers at an auditorium in South Jeolla Province, Thursday.
By Kim Tae-jong
On Tuesday morning, a 21-year-old conscript to a police unit in Incheon was found hanging from a tree at a public parking lot near his home. The young man, who was on a leave and required to report to his unit by 6 p.m. that day, is believed to have opted to take his own life instead of facing further harassment by his senior officers.
Oh Tae-min, a 24-year-old college student, has sympathy for the latest victim of the die-hard abuse conscripted policemen receive from senior officers. Oh still shudders recalling the horrible experiences he endured while serving his military duty as a riot police officer until last March.
“It was really tough to deal with violent protestors, but it’s much more tougher to face the harassment of senior officers who often assaulted us without obvious reasons in the name of discipline,” Oh told The Korea Times.
However, he confessed he also had to beat his subordinates for similar reasons, believing riot policemen must obey their superior's orders under any circumstance to prevent accidents during clashes with violent mobs.
“You have to be mobilized in the center of violent protests and you need to be strict against those involved. So senior officers always make their subordinates be in full control so that they can do anything they are ordered to,” Oh said. “Once victims, they mostly become assaulters later _ it’s a vicious cycle in which they are trapped.”
In a survey of 4,581 conscripts across the nation on Thursday by the National Police Agency (NPA), 365 or 8 percent of the respondents answered they experienced assault or harassment. Among the cases were 138 beatings, 143 reports of bullying and 84 verbal abuse and sexual harassment cases.
Agony of parents
Whenever tragic incidents happen, victimized conscripts’ families vent anger against the authorities and call for the government to take stern and fundamental countermeasures. But little has changed for decades.
“We could have stopped him from making such an extreme choice,” said a father of a riot policeman, referring to the latest tragic incident. “When I think it could have been my son, it really terrifies me. Many of these poor young men suffer from depression from abuse but they are left uncared for.”
Requesting anonymity, the father said his son previously received medical treatment at the same hospital as the dead policeman did.
Parents of riot policemen argue that the main reason behind the repeat abuse is that they can’t receive proper protection from such harsh treatments under the current system.
“Commanders don’t really care what’s happening in their units,” said Lim Sung-ho, a member of an association for parents of riot policemen. “They are temporarily stationed at their squad. And they just want to cover up incidents as they don’t want to get in trouble, which would have an adverse impact on their promotion chances.”
Under the current complaint-filing system, conscripts can report abuse to the authorities. But Lim said it has had little impact on reducing assaults and harassment in the barracks.
“Who can rely on the system? You’ll directly receive counterblows. You’ll be transferred to another squad and bullied as a whistle-blower. I think higher-ranking officers have to take more responsibility for their subordinates and supervise them properly in the first place,” Lim said.
Commanders of police units have also been accused of having ignored complaints from junior policemen, leaving conscripts vulnerable to abuses by senior officers.
On Sunday, six conscripts belonging to a police unit in Gangwon Police, went absent without official leave (AWOL) for hours. They reported various cases of harassment and assault to a commander via telephone when being mobilized for quarantine operations against foot-and-mouth disease.
But the commander didn’t take any action, so the junior policemen, afraid retaliation in case their report was revealed, went AWOL and reported the case to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
In an unprecedented disciplinary action, the NPA has decided to disband the riot police unit, with 100 members being dispatched to other units across the nation.
Abolition of riot police system
The riot police system, an alternative mandatory military service, was introduced in 1970 to make up for the shortage of police officers during the authoritarian era.
To root out habitual violence and assault cases in the alternative draft system, the Roh Moo-hyun administration planned to abolish the riot police system by 2012. But the NPA has opposed the plan, citing the lack of budget to replace them with salaried policemen.
According to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the suicide rate among riot police has exceeded that of the military, with reports of mental illness among riot police also increasing.
“It’s a systemic problem. Without reforming it, it is obvious there will be more tragic incidents,” said Hwang Eui-gab, professor of Police Administration Department at Kyonggi University. “It was created by dictatorial governments to suppress protestors, but things have changed now, and we need a new system to deal with street demonstrations.”