SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean reservist went on a shooting spree that left two comrades dead and two others wounded on Wednesday before shooting himself dead, as Amnesty International urged Seoul to rethink mandatory military service.
The unidentified reservist opened fire on his fellow soldiers with his rifle during shooting practice at a military training camp in southern Seoul before turning the gun on himself, a defence ministry spokesman said.
“The man killed himself on the spot following the shooting spree,” the spokesman told AFP.
“The exact reason is still not clear, but our initial investigation found the incident appeared to be related to a personal matter,” he added.
According to the Yonhap news agency, Gangnam Style singer Psy, who is also a reservist, had been at the same training camp performing his mandatory military duty and left just 20 minutes before the shooting.
The shooter killed two reservists and left two others wounded, Yonhap reported, citing an army spokesman.
In a suicide note found in his pocket, the reservist complained that life was meaningless and said he had suffered during his military training, according to Yonhap.
“Tomorrow, I will do shooting practice... I am becoming obsessed with thinking that I want to kill them all and I want to die,” the note read.
Every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35 is required to serve two years in the military.
Upon completion, they must serve in the reserve forces for eight more years, with a maximum of 160 hours of duty per year.
Apart from those with physical disabilities, exemptions are rare and anyone refusing to serve – for moral or religious reasons – faces an automatic jail term.
Wednesday’s shooting came as Amnesty International released a report calling on South Korea to release hundreds of young men jailed for refusing conscription, and urging Seoul to offer alternatives to serving in the military.
Most prominent among the “refuseniks” are Jehovah’s Witnesses, some 12,000 of whom have been jailed over the past six decades.
Amnesty said the stigma attached to conscientious objectors meant many faced economic and social disadvantages that lasted far beyond the typical 18-month jail term.
“For the South Korean government to condemn innocent young men as criminals is a scandal and a violation of their rights,” said Hiroka Shoji, the watchdog’s East Asia researcher.
“The jailing of conscientious objectors does not make South Korea any safer, it only serves to stigmatise and crush the aspirations of young men who had bright futures.”
The main rationale for military service is the threat posed by North Korea, given that the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war.
For many the policy of conscription is an unwanted and deeply resented intrusion that interferes with studies or nascent careers and serves no discernible purpose, especially in a rapidly ageing society where the size of the workforce is dwindling by the year.
The vast majority, however unwillingly, buckle down, knowing that refusal means a criminal record that precludes any future job with the government or a major corporation.
But the Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few others opt for jail, citing their moral opposition to bearing arms.
'PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE'
Amnesty – while not calling for an end to conscription – said the government should provide options.
“The government is failing these young men, their families and society. There are genuine alternatives to military service that the authorities can and must provide,” said Shoji.
“These men are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.” The South Korean armed forces rely heavily on the military service system, with draftees accounting for the lion’s share of its 690,000 active personnel.
Wednesday’s shooting incident underlined the pressures many conscripts and reservists feel, and is just the latest in a series of similar incidents involving suicides and young men turning their guns on other members of their unit.
Military service in South Korea can involve genuine combat duty, often along the border with North Korea, which former US president Bill Clinton once described as the “scariest place on earth”.
In 2007, the defence ministry announced plans to introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors by 2009.
However, following the 2008 presidential election, the government announced the plans had been put on hold indefinitely, citing a lack of public support.