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S Korean men fighting a war in their own barracks

From the age of 18 years, South Korean men have to do a two-year military service. The reason -- to protect the country against a beligerent neighbour, North Korea. But for some of these young men -- they seem to be waging a war inside the military, rather than against a foreign enemy.

SEOUL: There was a standoff near the inter-Korean border in June -- not with North Korea, but between South Korean soldiers.

A sergeant -- identified only as Lim -- had deserted the army after killing five of his comrades. He was to be discharged in September.

While investigations into the shooting spree are going on, many people -- including the country's top military chief -- are saying bullying triggered the incident.

Kim Kwan-jin, a former South Korea defence minister, said: "One of the reasons why a sergeant with three months left in service carried out such an incident is the fact that intensive bullying still exists in the military."

Similar cases have happened in recent years and reveal a highly stressful military culture.

The Defence Ministry said that one in 10 enlisted servicemen are labelled as potentially dangerous -- like Sergeant Lim, who had required special psychological attention.

If anyone in the barracks found out about it, the affected soldiers could be ignored by their comrades -- a treatment known as the "invisible man".

That is why human rights activist Lim Tae Hoon opened the country's first non-profit centre to help young soldiers find help and advice.

He said: "When soldiers enlist in the military in our country, they can't freely go outside. Unless they get permits to go on holiday or sleepover, they all have to eat and sleep (in the military camp) for 24 hours. And that's why there's a lot of violence -- verbal and sexual."

He said about 300 cases of violent acts happen in the military every year, and that the military's counselling efforts are inadequate.

He added: "If a counsellor or psychologists determine a soldier has problems, then they would know what to do. But it's the commander who takes care of it. A commander is not a specialist."

Many South Koreans said the shooting last month will not be the last, unless changes are made to the way the military operates.

Cases of soldiers dying in the barracks have overshadowed the Korean military for decades. That is one of the reasons why some South Koreans are going to lengths to evade the mandatory military service, which is crucial to its defence against North Korea.

In June, four bodybuilders gained 50kg, becoming overweight so they could serve as non-reservists. Two celebrities pretended to have a mental problem and were exempted from military service.

Every year, about 200,000 young men enter the military -- knowing that the threats they will fight come from inside the barracks and not from North Korea.

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