The apparent suicide of a noncommissioned officer in the Navy last week amid allegations that she had been sexually assaulted by a senior male colleague has deepened concerns about crumbling discipline in South Korea’s armed forces.
The chief petty officer, whose identity was withheld, was found dead at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday, days after a probe began in response to her complaint.
The alleged crime took place in late May while she and the senior colleague were having lunch together at a restaurant near their unit on an island off the western port city of Incheon.
She promptly reported the matter to an immediate superior, who later gave a verbal warning to the alleged offender.
Military authorities said the victim did not want an official complaint to be filed at that time. She requested a meeting with the commander of her unit Aug. 7 to tell him what had happened.
She was assigned to another unit two days later, with her case reported to higher-ups.
It seems that the military authorities failed to take proper measures to protect the officer until she filed a formal complaint. Mobile text messages exchanged between her and her family, which an opposition lawmaker later disclosed, suggested she had been bullied, isolated and excluded from work while remaining at the same unit as the man she had accused.
Her case recalls that of an Air Force service member who took her own life May 21, about three months after a sexual assault by a senior male officer.
What is especially deplorable is that the alleged sexual assault against the Navy officer took place just six days after the suicide of the Air Force service member.
In the aftermath of the first suicide, Air Force Chief of Staff Lee Seong-yong stepped down and the Defense Ministry pronounced a one-month period to encourage people to report sex crimes in military barracks.
President Moon Jae-in visited the mourning altar for the Air Force officer on June 6 to offer his condolences to the bereaved family after attending a Memorial Day event. He said he was sorry for the state’s failure to protect her and ordered Defense Minister Suh Wook, who accompanied him there, to undertake a thorough investigation and rid the military of its backward culture.
At that time, the Navy officer was apparently being subjected to secondary harm in a very similar case.
Moreover, an Army brigadier general was arrested in July and indicted on charges of sexually molesting a civilian who worked at a military base.
The recurrent problem of sexual misconduct, along with other cases of lax discipline in recent years, may well heighten concerns about what is seen as the collapsing posture of the nation’s military.
Defense Minister Suh came forward Friday to offer his seventh public apology since he took office in September last year. According to ministry officials, he found out about the Navy officer’s sexual assault complaint only a day before her death.
On the same day, a presidential spokesperson said Moon was “infuriated” after being briefed on the case and had ordered a thorough probe.
Critics said that as commander in chief, Moon himself should have apologized for the Navy officer’s death instead of just expressing fury. Moon should also have been quick to dismiss the defense minister to prevent the further crumbling of military discipline.
Many people see Moon as negligent in carrying out his duties as commander in chief in the service of his peace agenda for the Korean Peninsula. The loosening discipline of South Korea’s military appears partly attributable to the Moon administration’s preoccupation with reconciliation with North Korea, which continues to upgrade its nuclear arms and ballistic missiles despite its growing economic predicament.
The deceased Navy officer was buried Sunday at a national cemetery in the central city of Daejeon after a Navy committee decided her death occurred “in the line of duty.”
Moon and military leaders must not fail to do all they can this time around to ensure that there will be no more victims of sex crimes in military barracks.