South Korea defence chief apologises for army shooter remarks

A mourner comforts a relative of a dead soldier on June 23, 2014 after paying her tribute at the group memorial altar of the five soldiers who were killed by a conscript soldier, identified as Sergeant Lim. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A mourner comforts a relative of a dead soldier on June 23, 2014 after paying her tribute at the group memorial altar of the five soldiers who were killed by a conscript soldier, identified as Sergeant Lim. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's defence minister apologised on Friday to the relatives of victims of a shooting rampage by an army conscript for suggesting that those killed had been bullying the gunman.

The shooting took place last Saturday when a 22-year-old sergeant, surnamed Lim, opened fire on members of his own unit at a guard post near the tense border with North Korea, killing five and wounding seven.

Lim was captured alive on Monday after a 24-hour standoff with thousands of troops ended when he shot himself in the chest.

Minister Kim Kwan Jin had infuriated the families of Lim's victims when he suggested, in a recent meeting with lawmakers, that bullying had been a factor behind the shooting spree.

"I feel sorry for hurting the hearts of the bereaved families by causing a misunderstanding that bullying was a motive," Mr Kim said in a statement. "We will thoroughly bring the truth to light in order not to damage the reputation of the victims," he said.

Barrack-room bullying is a sensitive issue in South Korea, where the vast majority of personnel are those serving their mandatory two-year military service. Mistreatment of fresh conscripts used to be rampant and was blamed for a number of suicides and similar shooting sprees in the past.

Measures have been taken to stamp out the practice, but experts say those who struggle to adapt to military life are often isolated and humiliated.

Lim joined the army in 2012 and was only three months away from being discharged. He had difficulty adapting to the military, and psychological evaluations had advised senior officials to pay special attention to him.

Before his unsuccessful suicide attempt, Lim wrote a suicide note that media reports say detailed how bullying drove him to despair. The defence ministry has refused to release the note or confirm its contents.