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By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: June 20, 2005
SEOUL, South Korea, June 19 - A 22-year-old South Korean private who had been hazed by his superiors killed eight soldiers early Sunday morning at a guard post at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, inflicting the highest number of casualties on the South Korean Army since 2000.
The private, identified by the news media here as Kim Dong Min, tossed a hand grenade inside the barracks at the guard post in Yonchon, about 40 miles northeast of here, as 25 soldiers slept, according to the Defense Ministry. He also fired as many as 44 rounds, killing eight, including the post's commander, First Lt. Kim Jong Myeong.
Private Kim, who was arrested 10 minutes after the incident, had returned to the barracks after a patrol duty and became enraged when he saw the superior who had abused him, an army spokesman said at a news conference.
"Kim said that he committed the crime by accident, in a burst of anger, because of habitual harassment by his senior soldiers, who bullied and used verbal violence against him," said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Chang Suk Gyu.
General Chang said the private, who had no history of mental instability, had not suffered from physical abuse.
The incident was likely to raise questions about how South Korea staffs and trains its 650,000-member armed forces. Because South Korea remains technically at war against North Korea, the demilitarized zone remains the most heavily fortified place on earth.
Private Kim had been serving his 24-month mandatory military service, standard for all South Korean men. Shortly after joining the army last December, he was deployed to the border unit.
Frontline assignments are considered the toughest, and troops are armed with grenades and live ammunition.
South Korean news media said the incident was similar to one in 1996, when a corporal killed three soldiers and wounded 10 at an army unit in Kangwon Province.
The South Korean military has long faced the problem of abuse by senior soldiers against lower-ranking ones. Hazing, while not considered as prevalent as before, is a legacy of South Korea's long era of military rule, which ended in the late 1980's.
A senior army officer said the army first began tackling the problem in the mid-1970's, after the Vietnam War, but focused on it especially with South Korea's democratization and growing awareness of human rights. Guidelines, he said, were handed down to officers, instructing them, "Do not use assault and battery as a means of discipline." A system of punishing offending officers was strengthened.
Besides physical abuse, higher-ranking soldiers psychologically and verbally harassed lower-ranking ones, the officer said. A typical form of abuse was to block a lower-ranking soldier from speaking.
President Roh Moo Hyun ordered the Defense Ministry to start an investigation into the incident. Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung apologized for the "shocking incident" at a news conference, bowing his head. He said follow-up measures would be taken to prevent a similar incident from occurring.
Relations with North Korea have significantly changed since South Korea began carrying out its so-called sunshine policy in 2000, with South Korean tourists and businessmen crossing the demilitarized zone every day at two entry points. But hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still stationed on both sides of the demilitarized zone, which remains heavily mined and restricted.