Monday, June 23, 2014

Psychology Testing in the Korean Military is a Joke

For those of you who have been keeping up with the news, a Korean soldier, who has only been identified as Lim () killed five other soldiers and injured seven others before deserting his post with his K-2 rifle and 60 rounds of ammunition on Saturday.

It has been reported that the military has deployed several helicopters and special commandos to capture Sergeant Lim.

(Lim is a conscript and his rank is byeong-jang (병장), which does not have an equivalent in the US Army.)

And as it stands right now, the soldier who was conscripted in December 2012 and was to be discharged from active duty in September, opened fire at some of the soldiers who has been ordered to capture him. A platoon leader, who has also been thus far unidentified, suffered gunshot wounds during the firefight.

It was also reported that when Lim took a personality test in April 2013, he was classified as a “Grade-A” soldier that needed “special attention” and was unfit for duty at a general outpost (GOP). In Korean, those kinds of soldiers are known as gwan-shim byeong-sa (관심병사). When he took the test again in November 2013, he was classified as a “Grade-B” soldier who still needed attention, but was able to carry out the GOP mission.

When he took the personality test again in March this year, he was evaluated as having no special problems.

It has been further reported that there are about 1,800 other soldiers that have also been classified as requiring “special attention” in the 22nd Army Infantry Division, where Lim had been stationed.

As of this writing, he has yet to be apprehended, though his capture, dead or alive, is inevitable.

Location 1 is the GOP where the incident originally took place and Location 2 is where Sergeant Lim is currently engaged in a one-man guerrilla war.
Image Source

From this point on, I will attempt to use my experience to speculate as to how this incident happened. Of course, I do not make any claims to know this soldier or what he thought or what the military is currently trying to do. I am going to explain the system that allowed something like this to happen.

I served in the ROK Army from June 2011 to March 2013. Though I don’t think about those boys in the military very often as I am very busy with my job, my personal life, and blogging, I do think about them from time to time. And it is heartbreaking whenever these kinds of news stories emerge.

After all, this was not the first time that a shooting incident like this has taken place.

Like anyone else who has served in the Korean military, I, too, have taken these tests before. I took it once before I was conscripted, once more during boot camp, and then took the test at least once every two months during the remainder of my time in the Army.

The test is mandatory for all conscripts and consists of around 200 to 300 questions; many of them that are similar to each other and merely worded differently. They are multiple choice questions. The simplest ones are “yes or no” questions and some of the harder ones are answered by grading how strongly one feels about the question; the answers ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The following are some of those questions that I recall at the top of my head:

  • I think that life is not worthwhile.
  • I often hear voices although no one is around me.
  • I feel that the world is out to get me.
  • If I died, no one would notice.
  • I often contemplate suicide.
  • I am afraid of what kind of life I will lead after being discharged.

Of course, there are many other questions. The ones that I picked are the questions that the examiners look out for the most. Other questions are mostly used to know how well an individual might adapt to Army life, or how optimistic/contented or pessimistic/dissatisfied a person is.

Image Source

Though I am sure that not all military bases does this the same way, in my experience, failing this test was not an option. Let me explain.

Firstly, if it were to be discovered that a soldier was deliberately answering the questions to appear suicidal when the soldier is actually mentally fit, there is the possibility that he could be thrown into the brig. Not an altogether pleasant experience, I hear. On top of that, the time that a soldier spends in the brig does not count toward the number of days that he must serve in the military. For example, if a soldier is sent to the brig for a week, his service is extended by a week.

Secondly, before it is determined that a soldier is faking the results, if a soldier raises those red flags, that soldier is made to retake the test at least one or two more times. If the soldier still raises those red flags, then the company commander (who is usually a captain) will have a discussion about that soldier with the rest of his squad, his squad leader (who is usually a byeong-jang), and his platoon commander (who is usually a non-commissioned officer).

If it is deduced that the soldier is not faking it, the company commander, after consultations with the battalion commander (who is usually a major or a lieutenant colonel) will then order that soldier to go to a place called “the green camp.” That is where all the maladjusted end up going where they are constantly watched to make sure that they do not try to hurt others or themselves. They are also never allowed to go anywhere alone; not even to the bathroom. They are mostly made to watch videos (that are usually badly made PowerPoint slides) that have been made by the Defense Department during “mental training lessons” (정신교육) that are meant to instill pride and self-esteem.

Other conscripts also have to watch these videos, too, about once a week, but I was told those at the green camp are made to watch these ad nauseum.

Image Source

As I have never been ordered to go to a green camp myself, I have no first-hand knowledge of what goes on in there.

Occasionally, when a soldier’s case appears so extreme that the military does not think that it has the ability to help him, the military will give him an early discharge. However, such instances are very rare.

The test itself is very easy to pass. Even if a soldier does hear phantom voices and does have suicidal tendencies, the hassles that one has to go through can be so damned tedious that most soldiers give the answers that the test givers want to see. Most soldiers who take the test repeatedly and still provide the same answers that raise those red flags despite the tedium and the possibility of wrongfully being thrown into the brig are those who are sincerely disturbed and calling out for help. And the best they usually get is being sent to the green camp.

In other words, the tests are a joke. However, there is no other way to test these soldiers.

Image Source

In the battalion that I served, there were approximately 300 conscripts and about 40 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 20 commissioned officers (COs). Each has their own functions and jobs and unless there are outward signs that people can easily notice, it is very hard to know which of these soldiers are ticking time bombs. As mentioned earlier, there are approximately 1,800 soldiers who require “special attention,” but not all of them are potential killers. There is no way to know for sure that there isn’t a soldier who will decide to do something really stupid one day.

The ones who will know best are the squad members themselves. However, there are a lot of disincentives that prevent those conscripts from coming forward. Conscripts are at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole. If they make such reports to their platoon leader, depending on the kind of leader that they get, each and every one of them will be questioned and interrogated to the point of excessive tedium (which means that there will be A LOT of work that they have to catch up on later on, which means that there won’t be much time for them to rest even on the weekends) or they will simply be ignored.

The officers do not have the incentive to help much. Firstly, unlike the conscripts, these officers are in the military by choice. The military is not just some annoying thing that they have to go through. It is their career. And if a conscript, some runt who is only there for twenty-one months, messes up and is later discovered, there is a good chance that those officers might be censured, which means that they won’t get promoted. For an officer, there is no clearer death knell than being passed up for promotion.

Therefore, they prefer not to deal with it and want to see things buried.  Out of sight, out of mind.  A mere 21 months later and those trouble makers will be someone else’s problem!

(While I was in the Army, I heard conscripts frequently saying that the officers are not out for their best interests. Some even said that if a war breaks out, they will kill their own officers before they start shooting at the North Koreans.)

Image Source

As a result, the conscripts usually try to deal with whatever problems that are on hand by themselves. However, they aren’t psychologists. And being young boys – bored and armed to the teeth – who are usually anywhere from 19 to 22, they have little patience for the gwan-shims. This is why a lot of bullying and hazing takes place.

If a single conscript messes up, it’s not just him that is punished. The entire platoon, and sometimes the entire company is punished. And the officers don’t go unpunished either. In fact, the officers are more severely punished than the conscipts usually are, which goes back to why the officers are not inclined to help.

So, the conscripts try to handle things “locally.” Unfortunately, the bullying and hazing tactics that the conscripts rely on can be extremely counterproductive. Therefore, as useless as these tests are, they are the least bad way to determine if a soldier is a threat to others and/or himself.

The fact that the vast majority of the Korean military is composed of conscripts, young boys who have been forcefully made to serve in the military, is likely the biggest reason why these individuals are there in the first place.

In an all-volunteer military, such individuals, if discovered, can be discharged honorably or otherwise (not that that is any guarantee that psychologically problematic individuals are not weaned out). However, in the case of Korea, where all able-bodied Korean men are forced to serve by decree, it becomes nearly impossible to discharge them.

When there are so many soldiers who will do anything to get out of having to serve in the military (as can be seen here, here, and here), when there are so many who will fake being sick, mentally or physically, the military bureaucracy does not give a lot of opportunities for those who genuinely need help from receiving it.

I stand firmly opposed to military conscription for moral reasons. However, as long as North Korea remains an existential threat to South Korea, it will be nearly impossible to do away with conscription.

Until this view changes, I think that these shootings will not be the last of its kind.

Milton Friedman's Influence on Ending the Draft in the United States


  1. Theres nearly no therapy industry here, so why would one expect tests like those to be anything more than time wasters?

    Military is there to have warm bodies doing menial work. Of course, some young people will become good military leaders and learn good skills, but like our hagwons/uni jobs underusing MA and PHDs and such, I would doubt theres any really utilizing the more capable ones. When NK has stirred things up, I wonder how these young people react. Sorry to sound negative, but when I read your post, its was I thought.

    1. Although the therapy industry might not be as developed in Korea as it is in the US or other western countries, it is not non-existent. A quick Naver search for "심리상담" shows that there are plenty of therapists of all stripes in Korea. The stigma that is attached toward people who seek therapy, on the other hand, is a different story.

      Doubting South Korean soldiers' reaction to a North Korean attack, however, is being too negative, I think. For example, when the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeongdo in 2010, South Korean soldiers returned fire in 13 minutes. A lot of people think that that is too slow. I think a lot of those people who made that complaint never served in the military. Firing artillery rounds at the enemy in 13 minutes is a really fast response.

      And the South Korean military trains very hard for any and all kinds of combat situations. When hostilities break out, most people begin to panic. That is why the military trains its soldiers as much as it does, to make sure that the training kicks in and the soldiers don't desert their posts.

  2. Great insight. Thanks. I once heard the Korean military has the highest suicide rate of any army. Is that true?

    1. Though there are certainly numerous documented times when soldiers have either attempted or actually committed suicide, I am not sure if the Korean military has the highest suicide rate of any military in the world. I don't know if there is even a statistical study about that.