The Korea Herald


[Weekender] Netflix series about abuse in military emboldens calls for change

By Choi Si-young

Published : Sept. 18, 2021 - 16:00

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Netflix series Netflix series "D.P." (Netflix)
A hit Netflix series exploring the culture of abuse among South Korea’s enlisted soldiers is fueling calls for the military to get tougher on rights violations, just as a military task force in charge of reform is set to wrap up its work.

“D.P.,” short for Deserter Pursuit, aired Aug. 27 and is one of the top shows in Korea. It looks at the country’s mandatory conscription system, and physical and mental abuse in the military take center stage.

Most of this abuse takes place within the military police units that hunt down deserters, who often run because of abuse in their barracks.

“I am not looking for someone to blame here. The series is me repenting for having stood there and done nothing to stop the abuse from running its course,” Kim Bo-tong, the writer of the webcomic that inspired the series, said of his own military past as part of a deserter pursuit team.

More needs to be done to stamp out the culture of abuse that has long gone unnoticed by the military, he said. The military, which is facing unprecedented reform efforts led by an outside panel, has openly called the series misleading because of certain “dramatic scenes.”

Abuse scandals dogging military

Public confidence in the military is at its lowest. The civilian-led advisory panel was put together in June to boost civilian oversight of the military, but many scandals have since come to light. These involve allegations of abuse, including sexual assault, and subsequent cover-ups. 

Netflix series Netflix series "D.P." (Netflix)
“The military is no longer capable of self-discipline, period. We need to put the military in a better check, do something more than what has already been done,” said Kim Hyung-nam, director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea.

At the panel’s recommendation, the military recently handed over to civilian authorities the power to investigate and try sex crime cases. For other crimes, the military courts are responsible for first trials. But even first trials must go to civilian courts if they involve a soldier’s death.

Some panel members originally sought to abolish the military court system altogether. The military has been accused of thwarting their efforts and pressuring the parliament to water down its recent reform legislation.

The military said it needed to maintain its jurisdiction over first trials for cases involving military security. But Kim of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea says such cases account for only a small percentage of the total and that soldiers want to be tried in civilian courts, which they consider more impartial.

One conscript named Park, who recently completed his service, said he felt the military had its own set of rules, and they compromise transparency when dealing with crimes taking place on the inside.

“I don’t know, but if I were to stand before court for some reason and given a choice, I’d rather go to a civilian one. More people are watching the trial there so I think I could expect a ruling I can trust,” said Park, asking to be identified by his surname only.

But Park stressed that he was never subjected to physical or mental abuse in the military, nor had he witnessed others being abused, though he’d heard from other soldiers that bullying and hazing took place in front-line units in the name of tradition. 

Netflix series Netflix series "D.P." (Netflix)
“I think it all comes down to one thing, and that is how the military handles crimes taking place inside. Abuse that extreme (as seen in the series) is rare. But is the military doing everything it can to punish the abusers the way it should? I still have doubts, and I think many do,” said Park.

A long way to an overhaul

The civilian panel advising the military on its reform is set to complete its work this month, but the military has yet to embrace one last piece of reform that many say is needed to stop rights violations.

“An outside human rights commissioner. That’s what we have needed for the past seven years to accelerate change,” said Oh Byung-doo, chair of the Center for Judicial Watch, referring to the beginning of the debate on this topic in 2014.

Oh said the military has all the right institutions in place to process complaints but those responsible for running them have failed to act for many reasons, one of which he said was “inertia.”

Netflix series Netflix series "D.P." (Netflix)
“Someone on the outside is the right person to put an end to it,” Oh said, adding that the person would have to have the power to question everyone involved in abuse allegations as they take place. Appointing the right civilian expert, one who knows how the military is run, is not hard, Oh said.

The military, which has not publicly opposed bringing aboard an independent expert, is nevertheless reluctant to give away its jurisdiction again.

“Letting an outsider in and out of bases whenever he or she feels appropriate could lower discipline on the inside,” the military said, adding that the commissioner could access military secrets.

Netflix series Netflix series "D.P." (Netflix)
Oh called the rebuttal untenable, pointing out that the president and defense minister are both civilians. Civilian participation is necessary to check the military and there will not be any discipline to talk about if abuse cases are repeatedly mishandled, according to Oh.

Lee Ji-hun, a former military prosecutor who worked for the Defense Ministry, said an outside arbiter would instead prevent discipline from deteriorating by offering the military a fresh angle without bias. Lee highlighted the intervention as key to revamping a culture prone to glossing over abuse.

“History shows you just can’t work it from within,” Lee said.