Sergeant Lim was only three months short of completing his compulsory national service in the South Korean military when he finally snapped.

After ending his watch on the evening of June 21 at an outpost monitoring the demilitarised zone that divides the Korean peninsula, Lim reportedly returned from the front line, drew the pin on a hand grenade and threw it at seven colleagues preparing to go on duty. He emptied the magazine of his machine gun at the injured men, killing one. He reloaded and shot another two soldiers on his way to a barracks block. One died immediately, the other succumbed to his injuries later.

But Lim’s rampage was not over. Next he went into the living quarters and continued firing, killing one more colleague. A fifth soldier died as he attempted to raise the alarm. As well as the dead, seven members of Lim’s unit were injured.

Leaving chaos in his wake, 22-year-old Lim fled into the mountains that punctuate Goseong county. Over the next 24 hours, he was involved in skirmishes with troops dispatched to catch him and ignored pleas by his father over loudspeakers to give himself up. Eventually cornered and with troops closing in, Lim attempted to kill himself with a gunshot, but only managed to inflict an injury to his abdomen.

In the subsequent investigation, the army determined that Lim had been an outsider in school and remained distant after starting his compulsory national service. A psychological assessment 15 months before his rampage warned that he was at risk of attempting suicide or causing an incident.

The ultimate trigger on that hot June evening appears to have been a cartoon drawn by one of his squad on the cover of the unit surveillance log depicting Lim as the SpongeBob SquarePants character. The inquiry was also shown a letter that Lim wrote shortly before he attempted to take his own life.

“Whatever wrong they committed, murder is an enormous deed,” he wrote. “But anyone in my situation would have suffered a life as painful as death. I’ve done wrong – but so have they.”

Lee Yeda lifts his arms wide, palms face up. His gesture is telling; Lim’s case may have been an extreme one, but bullying is endemic in the South Korean armed forces. It has caused the deaths of countless men – countless because the military has covered many up as accidents – and misery to virtually every conscript required to put in a 20-month spell in the forces, earning a paltry monthly salary of between 112,500 won (HK$800) and 149,000 won.

All were considerations when Lee took a decision that has come to define his life.

To serve in a nation that is in a constant state of semi-war with its belligerent and unpredictable neighbour requires bravery, he agrees.

But to refuse to serve, in defiance of both the law and social attitudes, arguably requires even more.

“I was 20 when I decided to seek asylum in another country, to avoid being drafted, so I went to France,” Lee says. “When I left South Korea, I only had the equivalent of 16,000 yen [HK$1,045] in my pocket. And when I arrived in France, I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t speak the language, but I was able to find an organisation that helps people apply for refugee status.”

While he was waiting for permission to remain in France, Lee slept rough or in shelters for the homeless. When his asylum request was approved, in June 2013, he became the first South Korean to be granted such protection based on conscription in his home country.

Lee says his moral refusal to serve in the South Korean military can be traced back to his boyhood, when he read the manga Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka. “I decided then that I would never kill another person,” he says. “Serving in the military, where I would have to try to take others’ lives, contradicted my conscience and my beliefs.”

Being a conscientious objector is not, however, a valid reason in South Korea to avoid being drafted and refusing to carry out military service can be punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

“And in Korea, it is then difficult to find a job for anyone who has not completed their national service,” Lee says. “Refusing to serve means that, in society, your life is terminated.”

A conscientious objector is also ineligible to work as a civil servant, including as a teacher.

The number of conscientious objectors in South Korea has increased since 2000, in part because of the participation of the Korean military in the Iraq conflict. Of the about 900 conscientious objectors in prison around the world, 800 are in South Korea, Lee says.

The alternative is to endure the conscription period.

“Many people have killed themselves to escape the bullying and there are suicides in the military almost every day,” he says, pointing to a case that took place just weeks after Lim’s rampage and further embarrassed the military and government by being played out in the full glare of the international media.

On August 11, two soldiers hanged themselves in an apartment while on leave. The following day, another trooper shot himself dead. All three men had been classified by army doctors as being in need of special attention.

And while statistics provided by the Ministry of National Defence in Seoul suggest that Lee’s claim that suicides are occurring nearly every day is overblown, the official figure of 82.2 such deaths on average each year between 2009 and 2013 is alarmingly high. It is also an increase on the average of 72.6 suicides per year between 2004 and 2008. According to the most recent official South Korean figures, there are 630,000 people in uniform in the south, including conscripts and regular members of the military.

“Quite a few young men kill themselves even before they start their service, out of a sense of desperation and the desire to avoid serving at any cost,” Lee claims.

Describing military service as “round-the-clock slavery”, he points out that conscripts receive less than the minimum wage, are not permitted to possess mobile phones or computers, have limited access to the internet and receive just 28 days a year of leave.

“My family, friends and loved ones are all in South Korea and I would like to emphasise my demand that the South Korean government rectify a situation whereby I was forced to take such extreme measures as to seek asylum in another country,” he says.

To go home now would see Lee imprisoned immediately, he adds.

And he warns that political and social changes in Japan indicate that that country might be heading down a similar road to that of South Korea, with the introduction of compulsory military service “not impossible” to imagine.

Lee visited Tokyo recently, at the invitation of Karin Amamiya. The social activist is concerned about the decision by Japan’s deeply conservative Liberal Democratic Party-led government to reinterpret the constitution to permit Japanese troops to intervene should one of Tokyo’s allies be under attack, a concept known as collective self-defence. Amamiya believes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given himself permission to read between the lines of a constitution that was written and passed into law with the precise aim of preventing Japan from ever again becoming involved in a war.

“There has been some talk of making military service compulsory again here in Japan since the LDP’s decision on the constitution,” she tells Post Magazine. “People sort of shrug when they hear that and while they might think it isn’t good, they really don’t know just how bad it will be.

That’s why I wanted Lee to come here, to meet with young people and to communicate to them his experiences and those of people in South Korea.

“I want him to give them a new perspective and to understand that this is their concern as well.”

Given Japan’s economic problems, Amamiya fears a situation in which young men and women from poor families that haven’t been able to afford crammer schools will end up joining the military simply because there are no other options.

“I’ve heard that an adviser to the government has even proposed that the government introduce a form of internship for young people to go into the military,” she says. “And there are suggestions that a new system will enable the government to pay a student’s university fees in return for an agreed period in the military afterwards.”

Lee Yeda And while there would inevitably be some young people who would resist the introduction of compulsory military service, Amamiya says she fears that Japan’s youth has forgotten how the students fought the government here in the 1960s; then left-wing students in Japan banded together to oppose the United States military presence in Japan and the Vietnam war, while others expressed their opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Confrontations with the authorities often became violent, with activists taking over university campuses and heavily armed police using water cannons and tear gas to bring them to heel.

Vladimir Tikhonov, a Russian-born academic who has taken South Korean nationality, agrees that Amamiya has cause for concern. A professor at the University of Oslo, in Norway, Tikhonov – who also uses the Korean name Pak Noja – has studied the issue of conscription in South Korea and says the practice could very easily be adopted in Japan.

“Yes, unfortunately, it looks increasingly to be a feasible possibility,” Tikhonov tells Post Magazine. “The Japanese right-wing, typically the likes of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, often refer to South Korean conscription as a desirable model to follow.”

Advocates elsewhere tend to gloss over the problems that have occurred in South Korea.

“Officially, beatings are no longer permitted in the barracks,” Tikhonov says. “The officers in whose units such violations occur risk disciplinary punishment, albeit very mild.

“The prohibition on beatings has been widely announced by the government in an effort to make military service seem less unattractive.

However, the habit of corporal punishment goes back to the times of the Japanese Imperial Army. It is ingrained in South Korea’s military culture and is hard to do away with.”

Aware that it has a major problem on its hands, particularly given the international media attention recent incidents have attracted, the government in Seoul has introduced a number of measures to better identify individuals who may be at higher risk of succumbing to the military’s rough-and-ready methods of dealing with its recruits.

Last month, the Defence Ministry announced it was proposing changes to the standards used for draft exemptions for people with a history of mental illness. At present, anyone who has received hospital treatment for a minimum of one year for mental illness is exempt from serving.

The ministry is considering reducing the treatment period to six months.

The changes may not be sufficient to overcome growing public unease at the recent spate of deaths. A poll cited by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper last month suggested that 42.5 per cent of South Korean fathers and 37.9 per cent of mothers whose sons were approaching conscription age would prefer them to be exempt. In a similar survey of high school students in Busan, more than 38 per cent said they would avoid conscription if they had the chance, with only 27.4 per cent agreeing that it was “natural and honourable” to serve in the military.

Yet still they go. And the reality of that service can be traumatising.

“The self-sacrifice of a human being can be noble, but without willingness, can it really be called self-sacrifice?” asks Ahn Ak-hee, 33, a freelance journalist based in Seoul. “And the draft system in South Korea has not changed since the 1950s, even though the economic system has developed and we have constructed a system of national defence.

“I see military service as exploitation with coercion by the government,” says Ahn, who completed his two years of national service but now believes conscription is a violation of human rights.

“My personal bad feelings towards conscription were because of the sensation of isolation from the rest of society,” he says. “In civilian life, we are surrounded by the media 24 hours a day, but in the army there’s no access to information from the internet, mobile phone, computers or any other devices. People are completely ignorant about life outside their base and it’s almost the same as being in prison.

“The enlisted men of the Korean army are treated as if they are prisoners.”

Ahn blames a combination of the isolation and abuse meted out by non-commissioned and junior officers for the incidents that have blighted the South Korean military in recent years. “And it is made worse by the government’s neglect, its failure to pay attention to the problem.”

FOR HIS PART, Lee’s refusal to serve means he has not been able to see family or friends since he fled South Korea, but, he says, he has no regrets over his decision.

“Being granted political asylum was not my only objective,” he says.

“I wanted to keep my dignity, my pride. My actions have brought about a lot of very positive effects as I have met many other people who are also seeking political asylum, I have been able to tell my experiences to the media and I have found that I can now talk from my heart about important social issues.”


By the same author: Hard times for Japanese cannibal