SEOUL, Aug. 4 (Yonhap) -- The defense minister apologized Monday over the death of a soldier who long suffered from severe assaults and abusive treatment by his comrades in his barracks, vowing to reform the military's culture to prevent any recurrence.
In April, a 23-year-old Army private first class, surnamed Yoon, died after allegedly being hit in the chest by six of his colleagues at their barracks of the 28th Division in Yeoncheon, just south of the inter-Korean border, while eating some snacks. The assault caused a piece of food to obstruct his airway, leading him to die of asphyxiation.
Initial investigations showed that the victim had long suffered from frequent assaults and abusive treatment by his senior soldiers, and the military is also looking into allegations that he was sexually molested by them.
"I feel heavy responsibility for failing to send draftees back to their families safely, which is a basic duty for commanders ... I apologize to the parents of Yoon and to the people," Defense Minister Han Min-koo said during a session of the parliamentary national defense committee.
Calling the incident one that "cannot be expected to happen in a civilized society in the 21st century," Han said he will carry out further investigation into the case "to find any structural problems and to take necessary measures."
"We will pour every effort into revamping the military culture," he stressed.
According to the military prosecution, the senior soldiers repeatedly beat Yoon for "being slow in answering and grimacing often."
They often forced him to stay awake until 3 a.m., to hold a horse-riding stance for hours during the night and to lick their spit off the ground.
The chief of the Army also apologized for Yoon's case, and said he is "ready to shoulder responsibility."
"Despite our efforts, such a gray area was found to exist. The buck stops here for me and I am ready to take responsibility," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Kwon Oh-sung told lawmakers.
Yoon's case has sparked public ire over a series of incidents that reveal the military's poor management of its troops. In June, an Army sergeant who had been bullied by his colleagues went on a shooting rampage, killing five and wounding seven others.
Both the ruling and opposition parties have called for a thorough probe into the case, including suspicions that the military had tried to cover up the incident, and urged heavy punishment for those responsible.
"This case is nothing but the annihilation of human rights, an organized malady and a murder," ruling Saenuri Party chief Kim Moo-sung told the party's Supreme Council meeting. "A through investigation is needed to reveal whether the military had tried to cover up the case, and stern punishment is needed against those who should take responsibility."
Park Young-sun, floor leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), lambasted the military for its alleged cover-up of the incident.
"The case would never have been known unless a civic group held a press conference last week. If the military came clean and came up with preventive measures, we could have prevented the shooting spree," she said.
Five of the six soldiers, including two sergeants and a staff sergeant, have been arrested on manslaughter charges, and the remaining private first class on assault charges.
Calls, however, have grown to apply murder charges, rather than manslaughter, against the suspects. Though the military has said the prosecution does not believe the suspects intended to kill Yoon, citing circumstantial evidence, the defense ministry said it "will review that part, factoring in public opinions."
A ruling by a military court is due Tuesday.
All able-bodied South Korean men must carry out about two years of military service, as the country is still technically at war with the communist North since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
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