S. Korean Navy sailor dies by suicide after reporting bullying to captain

Posted on : 2021-09-08 17:44 KST Modified on : 2021-09-08 17:46 KST
Little was done to address the soldier’s complains of assault, a human rights group says
ROKS Gang Gam-chan destroyer. (photo provided by Republic of Korea Navy)
ROKS Gang Gam-chan destroyer. (photo provided by Republic of Korea Navy)

A sailor on a South Korean naval destroyer killed himself four months after entering the service due to verbal abuse and group bullying by senior sailors, the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) said Tuesday.

While the sailor messaged the captain on his mobile phone to alert him about what was happening, the situation was allowed to fester for more than 20 days without the victim even being separated from his tormentors.

Once the military launched an investigation, the navy made the decision to send the captain and other main subjects of the investigation on an overseas assignment.

The CMHRK, a human rights group, provided information about the suicide in a press conference at its office in Seoul.

“A seaman surnamed Jeong who had begun service on the ROKS Gang Gamchan ended his life at home on June 18 while on leave, after being assaulted by his seniors and the authorities’ failed to take adequate measures,” the CMHRK said.

“Whenever someone dies in the military, the military tries to limit the number of people who will be held responsible by finding a way to cover it up. That’s a quality that never changes,” the center said, pressing the navy to conduct a proper investigation of the incident.

Military investigators were looking into this incident amid a rigorous investigation of the military’s handling of the sexual harassment suffered by an Air Force master sergeant who later killed herself. “Military authorities are currently investigating the cause of death and information about improper behavior in the barracks that was provided by the bereaved family,” a navy spokesperson said.

A source in the military said the claims made by the CMHRK were “generally correct,” adding that “there will be a further investigation once the unit leaders return from their current assignment.”

Lim Tae-hoon, director at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, reads a statement on Tuesday regarding the death of a soldier aboard the Republic of Korea Navy’s Gang Gam-chan destroyer. (Yonhap News)
Lim Tae-hoon, director at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, reads a statement on Tuesday regarding the death of a soldier aboard the Republic of Korea Navy’s Gang Gam-chan destroyer. (Yonhap News)
Verbally and physically abused by senior sailors in early March

According to the CMHRK, Jeong, who joined the ROKS Gang Gamchan on Feb. 1, was given a special two-week leave from Feb. 11 to Feb. 25 after his father suffered an accident. Upon returning from leave, he had to self-quarantine according to COVID-19 regulations until March 9 before resuming his responsibilities.

That was when the verbal abuse and group bullying reportedly began. Senior sailors mocked Jeong for “sucking honey” — military slang for “taking it easy” — and for living a charmed life. The other sailors would reportedly vacate the barracks whenever Jeong came by.

“On deck, two of the senior sailors shoved Jeong on the head and chest and knocked him over several times, accusing him of not doing his work properly. When Jeong asked how he was supposed to do his work, they told him, ‘Drop dead,’” the CMHRK said.

Some of Jeong’s fellow sailors have said that he’d told them about being assaulted in the cabin before his death. Jeong told them that senior sailors had cursed at him and pushed him back down when he tried to get to his feet.

The two senior sailors who have been identified as the culprits behind the abuse have reportedly denied Jeong’s account.

After being informed on March 16, the captain tells Jeong to “make up”

Though Jeong alerted his commander about the bullying, little was done to protect him or to punish his tormentors, the CMHRK said.

Jeong apparently reported the senior sailors’ verbal and physical attacks to the captain on March 16 over mobile messaging app Kakao Talk. But the captain merely moved Jeong to a different cabin and reassigned him from boatswain’s mate to the chief petty officer’s orderly.

A given voyage lasts for several weeks, and during that time, Jeong had no way to avoid his bullies in the confined space of the ship.

Then on March 26, Jeong reportedly contacted the captain and complained of what he was going through during an episode of self-harm.

Around 1 am on March 26, the captain suggested to Jeong that they set up a meeting so he could hear an apology from the bullies. The captain convened them to talk.

“Bringing the victim together with the senior sailors to make up instead of separating them was very inappropriate and an example of secondary victimization,” the CMHRK said.

The leadership of the ROKS Gang Gam-chan closed the case on April 1 by having the bullies write up what had happened and referring them to the discipline and guidance committee. The discipline and guidance committee can assign disciplinary drills and issue demerits, but it isn’t actually in charge of serious discipline or investigations.

“Referring the case to the discipline and guidance committee without disembarking the perpetrators for an investigation constitutes a cover-up,” the CMHRK said.

Even though Jeong attempted to harm himself and complained of panic attacks, the captain didn’t send him ashore to be treated at a civilian hospital until April 6, a month after the incident had occurred.

Jeong was put in a psychiatric ward and released on June 8. Ten days later, while he was at home on leave, he killed himself.

The military began its investigation after Jeong’s suicide, but military police have done little to establish the facts of the case.

One of the sailors identified as a bully has been booked for assault. But the captain and other senior officers on the ship were urgently dispatched on July 20 to the ROKS Munmu the Great (part of the Cheonghae Unit), near Africa, following a cluster of COVID-19 infections on the ship.

“The investigation was making progress but was temporarily suspended after the leadership were sent on an emergency assignment. The investigation will continue when they return,” a spokesperson for the navy said.

By Lee Seung-wook

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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