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South Korea: Marine's Shooting Spree Reveals Collective Bullying Tradition

In South Korea on June 4, 2011, a marine opened fire at several of his fellow soldiers, killing four and injuring two.

On the day of the incident the majority of blame fell on the culprit; however, as the days passed by, accusations began to fall on the leadership of the Marine Corps camp, where a tradition of collective bullying is believed to have contributed to several deaths.

Corporal Kim, 19 years old, (identity protected by law), was arrested on July 4 for stealing ammunition from a weapons storage room and fatally shooting his fellow marines. A private surnamed Jung is suspected of helping Kim in this alcohol-fuelled shooting rampage. Kim himself tried to commit suicide by detonating a hand grenade, but failed and is now hospitalized. Local reporters revealed that Kim told investigators that bullying in the camp has made him to plan the shooting spree.

Image of 'Non-Violence' (also known as 'the Knotted Gun') Sculpture near Malmo Central Station, Sweden. Image by Flickr User @sTe (CC BY 2.0).

Image of 'Non-Violence' (also known as 'the Knotted Gun') Sculpture near Malmo Central Station, Sweden. Image by Flickr User @sTe (CC BY 2.0).

‘Rank Exclusion’

In South Korean society where able-bodied men are obliged to undertake two years of military service, the revelation of systemic bullying in the highly esteemed Marine Corps has terrified and enraged the public.

The practise of “Rank Exclusion”(in Korean ‘기수열외’, pronounced ‘Gi-su-yeol-wae’) which has been blamed as part of the reason for the rampage, is a new word unfamiliar to most Korean people. A direct translation of the word would be “exclusion from an army rank/peer group”. The exclusion is not officially effective but very powerful. Being excluded in one's rank equates to a sentence of social death in the army.

While peers treat the victim as non-existent, the victim's subordinates and juniors talk down to him and physically and mentally torture him, since they no longer have to treat the victim as their senior. It causes extreme humiliation to Korean men who grow up in a society where it is a social norm to pay a certain amount of respect to older one and receive respect from the younger ones.

A day after the incident took place, a post [ko] written by an anonymous marine private who had also been collectively bullied in the camp, was spread online:

선임병들은 저에게 “너는 기수열외라고 후임병들하고 너는 아무 사이가 아니니 후임병들이 저에게 반말을 해도 되고 불만삼지말고 후임병들에게 저는 마치 민간인 아저씨같은 존재”라고 말합니다[…] 소등 이후 침대 2층에서 자고있으면 제가 코곤다고 하루에 2~4번씩은 제 옷의 카라 부분잡고 단추가 뜯어질 정도로 끌어당겨서 깨우는데 저는 아프고 깜짝놀라서 허둥지둥 깨어서 멍하게 있으면 제 옷잡고 코골면 죽여버린다고 잠깰때까지 밖에 나가있으라고 합니다 저가 자다가 깨서 잠시 정신을 들어서 다시 잘려고 눈감았는데 그때 와서 저깨우는데 그거 보고 이건 뭐지 할정도 입니다. 진짜 새벽에 2~3번 그렇게 당하고 잠못자고 갈데 없어서 화장실에 있다가 돌아오면 누워서 자고있는 머리통을 부셔버리고 싶은 충동도 생길정도입니다.

Seniors told me “since you are like an outcast from the ranks, you don't have any relationship with the juniors/subordinates.” “Don't complain when juniors talk down to you, because, to them, you are like a civilian old-guy in the army.” […] During the nights, when the lights were turned off and I slept in the top bunk bed, they suddenly woke me up by dragging and pulling my collar until the buttons ripped off. This happened about two t0 four times a day. When I woke up, all shaken up, physically hurt and dumbfounded, they threatened me “if you snore again, we will kill you” and made me stay outside until I fully woke up. That happened to me tw0 or three times early in the morning and I have no else to stay except the restroom. When I returned from the restroom and saw those people lying in beds and sleeping sound, I felt an impulse to smack their heads.

The harassment mentioned by the author of the post includes several more torture methods, such as messing around with his property and training schedules, and also physical menacing him. The author wrote that he had witnessed a case where the authorities had tried to solve the problem by transferring the victim to other camp, but it failed as the current bullies called the other camp and asked them to continue bullying the victim.

Social media reactions

Twitter user Specialshs who introduced himself as fervent reader of progressive news papers tweeted [ko]:

해병대의 기수열외 그 자체가 인격살인입니다 총기난사는 보복의 한 형태이지요 왕따가 가장 비열한 짓이라는 인식이 확산되어야 합니다[…]

The Marine's ‘rank exclusion’ itself is a social murder. The shooting spree was done as a form of revenge. We need to raise the awareness that the bullying is one of the most servile things people can do to other human being.

Blogger Filefree wrote [ko] that no matter how harsh the living condition had been, there is no possible excuse for murder:

김상병… 당신이 있는 곳은 학교가 아니라 군대다…그것도 우리나라에서 가장 힘들다는 해병대로 지원을 해놓고…'기수열외'때문에 너무 힘들어서 다 쏴죽였다는게 핑계거리나 되는건가? […]그리고 기수열외 한마디에 동정론이 왠말인가. […] 저긴 엄연한 군대이고 해병대다. 전쟁만 안났을뿐 목숨이 위태로운 전장이란 말이다.

To Corporal Kim. You are no longer in school, but in the army. You applied to join marine camp which is infamous for being the toughest place in the country.[Note: While it is obligatory to join the army, the marines are selective]. He said that he shot all those people dead because he suffered from rank exclusion. But can it possibly be a reason? […] How can people show empathy toward this guy, just because they have heard of rank exclusion? […] That place is none other than the army, the Marines and a dangerous battle field minus a real war, where people can risk their lives.

While a majority of Twitter users expressed anger at the evil tradition, E.S. Bahk (@holistic64), a Chinese-medicine practitioner and acupuncturist, defended [ko] the Marines:

해병대의 군기를 나무라는 말들이 많은데..해병대던 군대던 시회이던 학교던 어떤 조직에서도 왕따는 존재한다.[…] 그 조직의 아주 극히 일부분의 행동때문에 전체 조직을 폄하 할수는 없다.

There are criticisms on Marine morale. But people should know that whether it is the Marines, army, society or school, bullying exists in any organization. […]We cannot denounce the overall organization based on a single act done by the extreme few.

Twitter user Ryunan (@Ryunan9903) stressed [ko] that system does not deserve supports:

해병대의 기수열외는 암묵적으로 ‘왕따'와 ‘타인에 대한 배척’ 등의 사회에서 없애야만 할 잘못된 병폐를 오히려 하나의 문화로 인정하고 적극적으로 권장하는 앞뒤가 안 맞는 제도라고 생각한다.

The Marine's rank exclusion is a preposterous system which tacitly approves of the social illness of ‘bullying and ostracization’ as one of the culture and recommends [people] to follow it.

As more similar testimonies sprang up, even the mainstream media has started paying attention to bullying cases. South Korea's online news outlet, Cookie news [ko] introduced a tweet on July 6 which read that a day earlier the shooting spree took place, one private from the same camp, committed suicide after being bullied. The tweet written by user Tennis***** (hidden for privacy reasons) suspected that the Marine Corps is trying to cover up the case.

This suicide allegation needs to first be verified, but there is no denying the fact that the Marine's internal brutality has been raised as serious issue. A local newspaper revealed [ko] that in March 2011, South Korea's Human Rights Commission advised the Marines to set strict rules on collective bullying, but the Corps merely promised the change in late June.

The Human Rights Commission has launched a thorough investigation to this case.

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Please visit www.befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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