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Suicides among soldiers are up three times from last year

Apr 06,2018
The number of suicides in the Korean military is shooting upward, as 15 soldiers took their own lives in the first three months of the year, three times more than in the same period last year.

On March 27, a Navy commander was found dead in his living quarters after committing suicide.

The same day, an Army sergeant major was found dead in the outdoor smoking area near the lodgings for ranking officers. The cause of death was confirmed to be a suicide.

Two days later, on March 29, an Army private first class attempted suicide in his barracks and was immediately brought to a hospital, where he died.

There were nine suicides in the military just last month. In comparison, during the same period between January and March last year, there were five soldiers who committed suicide.

Generally, each year, there are more suicide attempts in the months of April and May, when the military is in a state of heightened alertness.

The Ministry of National Defense ordered each branch of the military to bolster their suicide prevention education. It also plans to hold a policy meeting on suicide prevention convened by Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk.

Until last year, the number of suicides in the military was declining. In 2011, 97 soldiers committed suicide. That number dropped to 79 in 2013, 57 in 2015 and 51 last year.

The Defense Ministry has focused on reforming the military’s culture since 2014, in response to two cases. A private first class surnamed Yoon died after taking extreme physical abuse from his fellow soldiers and a sergeant surnamed Lim killed five of his comrades after throwing a grenade and shooting them. Since then, various policies and measures were introduced to improve the military’s environment and morale, and they were effective at reducing the suicide rate, according to the ministry.

However, the number of suicides in the military increased for the first three months of this year, and the Defense Ministry and military authorities have not yet determined the reason.

“People with a tendency to depression become more emotionally anxious during springtime,” said Lee Dong-woo, a professor of psychiatry at Inje University’s Sanggye Paik Hospital. “While others see it as a starting point to turn over a new leaf, they feel burdened.”

But Lee added that “The seasonal factor does not explain the increased suicides in the military this year.”

While the overall number of suicides by enlisted soldiers declined over recent years, the suicides of commissioned and non-commissioned officers remained steady.

The suicides of enlisted soldiers dropped from 45 in 2013 to 17 last year. But in comparison, the number officers who committed suicide was 34 in 2013 and remained at 34 last year.

In 2015, there were 35 military officers who committed suicide and died, a higher number than the 22 soldiers who committed suicide that year. Each year since then, more officers committed suicide than soldiers.

Likewise, as of the end of this March, 10 officers committed suicide compared to five soldiers.

According to an analysis by the Defense Ministry, overwork and trouble adjusting to the military were some top reasons for suicide among officers. Psychiatric disorders was another leading reason for suicides of military officers.

“There are many ranking officers who move frequently or work in remote locations separated from their families,” said Baik Myung-jae, a psychiatrist with the Armed Forces Capital Hospital. “A considerable number of patients, in order to forget their loneliness, get into drinking and show tendencies of depression.”

He pointed out that these officers, even if they want to get psychological consultation, “are reluctant to do so because they may face disadvantages in their promotion if it becomes known, so the internal climate of the military is also problematic.”

Monday was the most common day of the week for officers to commit suicide, with 23.6 percent of cases analyzed by the Defense Ministry happening on that day.

“The military disciplinary committee is usually held on Fridays,” said a military source. “It is noted that there are cases where officers who are disciplined on Friday spend the weekend feeling despondent and attempt suicide on Monday.”

Another military source said, “While the military culture has improved through the defense reform 2.0 to improve the rights and welfare of soldiers, in comparison, ranking officers have been marginalized. The suicides of officers seem to reflect this phenomenon.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]