The Ministry of National Defense is pushing a sweeping reform of the military judicial system.
The military cannot be an exception to the principle of independence and the impartiality of investigations and trials.
The point of the reform is to change a closed authoritarian system in which commanders call the shots over military police, military prosecution and military courts into a more open and democratic one. In the present system, commanders of divisions or higher units can select military prosecutors, supervise arrests and indictments, choose presiding judges and commute sentences.
This concentration of power has been blamed for allowing military authorities to suppress or cover up human rights violations in barracks such as assaults, bullying and suspicious deaths, and slap criminals on the wrists. These judicial aberrations were made possible because it is nearly impossible to go against commanders who control just about anything in their units, including personnel and judicial matters.
According to the reform draft announced Monday, the High Military Court, which serves as an appellate court, will be abolished, and Seoul High Court, a civilian court, will take its place.
Thirty-one general military courts which hold first trials will be integrated into five new military courts under the direct control of the Defense Ministry. Even the first-trial military courts will be presided over by civilian judges.
Commanders will be banned from locking up subordinates in their unit guardhouses without warrants for disciplinary reasons. This authority has long been at the center of controversies over human rights in the military.
These reform plans aim at strengthening the independence and impartiality of judicial procedures.
There is no shortage of incidents showing that military judicial procedures were bent to brush accidents under the carpet.
A recent case in point is PFC Yoon’s death in an Army barracks in 2014. Military police and prosecutors, while blocking civilian access to their investigations, tried to conclude he had died of an opportunistic assault. But a civic human rights group revealed the truth of his death to the outside, and eventually the senior soldiers who treated him harshly to death were sentenced to five to 40 years in prison by the Supreme Court.
Civic groups at that time urged the military to reform its judicial systems, proposing similar measures as the latest reform draft, such as the transfer of military criminal cases to a civilian court, but the military authorities did not listen.
Military judicial reforms drafted this time are belated but welcome in that they are in the same direction as those demanded by human rights groups.
The framework of the present military judicial systems was established in 1987 when the Constitution was amended. Little has changed since then. The system has been criticized for being outdated to meet the demands of enlisted soldiers of today. Calls for reform have mounted as young men with more awareness of human rights and a stronger sense of individuality join the military.
Military judicial reform was drafted by the Presidential Committee on Judicial Reform in 2006, but efforts to enact it failed amid a strong backlash from the military, which held fast to the position that the right to command should not be weakened. But this time, judicial reforms were drafted by the Defense Ministry. It should prepare meticulously to get them enacted without fail and without their purpose being compromised.
The morale of soldiers and the public trust in the military are as important as cutting-edge weapons in strengthening the nation’s defense capabilities. Mistrust in the military judiciary will hurt the capabilities.
The military must know that the society does not view the military and life in the barracks by old standards any more. Civic awareness of human rights is not the same as before.
The Defense Ministry must try to work out detailed measures to strengthen judicial independence from the influence of commanders, and lawmakers must consider them positively.