Family that exposed military cover-up of loved one’s death reflect on Marine’s death

Posted on : 2024-05-08 17:05 KST Modified on : 2024-05-08 17:05 KST
Over 10 years and through over 450 freedom-of-information requests, a family exposed lies the military told about their loved one’s death — they say that progress has been made in holding the military accountable, but still expressed concern about outside forces manipulating the institutions
Family of the late soldier Yoon Seung-ju hold up court records and related documents acquired through an information disclosure request ahead of speaking to the Hankyoreh at its offices in Seoul on May 1, 2024. From left to right are Yoon’s elder brother-in-law Kim Jin-mo, Yoon’s mother Ahn Mi-ja, and Yoon’s older sister Yun Seon-yeong. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Family of the late soldier Yoon Seung-ju hold up court records and related documents acquired through an information disclosure request ahead of speaking to the Hankyoreh at its offices in Seoul on May 1, 2024. From left to right are Yoon’s elder brother-in-law Kim Jin-mo, Yoon’s mother Ahn Mi-ja, and Yoon’s older sister Yun Seon-yeong. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

Yoon Seung-ju, a private in the Korean Army, was beaten to death on April 7, 2014. He had been relentlessly bullied by several higher-ranking soldiers in his unit until a final blow felled him for good.

The military said Yoon had suffocated to death after a dumpling got stuck in his throat. That’s a lie his family members have spent the past decade combatting.

“Private Yoon” has now become synonymous with victims of violence in the military.

On May 1, Yoon’s mother Ahn Mi-ja, 69, his older sister Yoon Seon-yeong, 46, and her husband Kim Jin-mo, 49, sat down together for an interview in a fifth-floor conference room in the Hankyoreh office in the Gongdeok neighborhood of Seoul’s Mapo District.

The very next day, the National Assembly passed a bill that would assign a special prosecutor to investigate the death of a Marine corporal surnamed Chae during a flood rescue operation last year.

Yoon’s family members said that Chae’s case was kept in the public eye by military institutions that have improved since Yoon’s death, as well as thanks to the efforts of Col. Park Jeong-hun, who served as the head of the Marines’ investigation team. But they’re still concerned that powerful figures outside the military could step in to manipulate those institutions.

After Chae’s fatal accident, Yoon’s mother said she sometimes finds herself wishing that her family had had someone like Park Jeong-hun to get involved after her son’s death.

Back in 2014, things were much different than they are today.

“In April 2014, when we asked the provost marshal [who was in the same position as Col. Park] whether anything had turned up in connection with the bruises, he accused us of trying to take over his investigation,” said Kim Jin-mo, Yoon’s brother-in-law. The bruises on Yoon’s body were not consistent with the Army’s claim that Yoon had died of asphyxiation.

“We heard the same thing from the commander, the military doctor, the coroner, the military prosecutor, the military police, Army Headquarters and the Ministry of National Defense. Internally, the case had been disposed of at lightning speed,” Kim recalled.

“I think that the Private Yoon case was what made people like Park Jeong-hun possible. I’d figured there would be [more] bereaved families who would fight as we have, but I never knew there would be a provost marshal who would fight alongside them. It’s an amazing step forward — it’s a miracle.”

According to Statistics Korea, a hundred or so Korean service members die each year.

“It was a relief to see the institutions that were set in motion after Yoon’s death operating in the Corporal Chae case,” Kim said.

Unlike the past, investigations of deaths in the army are no longer kept under wraps by the military police. It’s now possible for other people to at least check on what progress has been made.

The problem is when other figures meddle in the system.

In regard to the Corporal Chae case, various people are rumored to have been involved: Yu Jae-eun, a legal affairs officer at the Ministry of National Defense, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, and even the president himself.
 
“The problem is people. The military has a knack for exploiting loopholes. If you get complacent about the systemic reforms and stop watching closely, we might find ourselves going back a decade in time,” Kim said.

Thanks to the Private Yoon case, the Corporal Chae case was brought to public awareness, and the special prosecution bill passed the National Assembly.

But in the Private Yoon case, no evidence has emerged to confirm allegations about a cover-up. Yoon’s bereaved family members filed criminal complaints against the head of the investigation section at the military police, the provost marshal, the coroner, the military prosecutor and a support officer in the medical corps, but none of them were indicted. Five individuals were convicted of Yoon’s murder and manslaughter, but nobody has been convicted in connection with the alleged cover-up.

The officer in charge of protecting human rights in the military at Korea’s National Human Rights Commission, a position that was created after Yoon’s case, rejected a petition to investigate those allegations and, when Yoon’s family protested this move, then asked the authorities to investigate the family for obstructing his duties.

The battle over the past decade was led by Kim. “Without my son-in-law, we would never have made it this far,” said Ahn, Yoon’s mother.

On the night of the accident, Yoon Seon-yeong, the victim’s older sister, kneeled down before her husband and begged him to help the family. Kim promised his wife he would do one thing each day for the cause.

One of the results of his efforts is the information acquired through 470 freedom-of-information requests.

“It was extremely likely that [Yoon’s death] would remain a mystery if we didn’t do something. So we decided to spend a decade battling the military to get to the truth,” he said.

While that campaign began as a family affair, it’s now intended to benefit all who suffer in the military.

“Lots of people are having a hard time, even if they don’t get media coverage,” said Ahn.

“It’s important to show up at trials and cheer on the plaintiffs. I want my life to be one where I’m always ready to run to the side of those who are alienated and in need. I pray I can be that kind of person,” she added.

“I want to do my part so that no more soldiers will die as my little brother did due to gross human rights violations. The mission of our family is to make this a world in which no deaths are swept under the rug and in which the perpetrators are fully prosecuted,” the older sister said.

By Koh Kyoung-tae, staff reporter

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

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