"People say that what I'm doing is like throwing eggs at a rock. But I believe that if you throw enough eggs, we can break the rock. We started out with the conviction that if we keep crying out, we will make at least a slight difference, make right at least a small wrong. The Army wants us to tire ourselves out and give up, but we will never stop, so that there will be no more heartbroken parents like us, so that there will be no more wounded hearts like ours."
Kim Jeong Sook, president of the 'Association of Families Against Unexplained Deaths and Violence in the Army' (AFUDVA), says that if only such an organization existed much earlier, they would have been able to minimize the misfortunes they are fighting against. It is this feeling of regret that drives her to lead AFUDVA despite daunting obstacles.
AFUDVA was founded against the backdrop of Lieutenant Kim Hoon's death in the army in February 1998. Kim was found dead with gunshot wounds while serving in the Joint Security Area along the boarder with North Korea. The military investigation authorities concluded the case as a suicide. But Kim's family refused to accept the conclusion, and sought the help of the Catholic Human Rights Committee. The Committee immediately joined in to launch a campaign calling for more exhaustive fact-finding investigations, and the case began to receive public attention through the press. And in December of the same year, Lee Hye Sook, mother of private Park Hyun Woo who died a mysterious death in service, led the creation of the 'National Association of Families of Victims of Army Violence' (NAFAV).
The families of the deceased victims demand that investigations into alleged suicide cases in the army be reopened to discover the truth surrounding such deaths and to prevent recurrences. However, it was difficult for the families alone to go up against the organized and closed-up military authorities, and due to lack of social and political experience, they approached the problem on a case-by-case basis, failing to see it as a structural problem. This subsequently led to conflict within NAFAV, and so the families reorganized themselves under the Catholic Human Rights Committee as the 'Gathering of Families For Investigations into Unexplained Deaths and Eradication of Violence in the Army.' This gathering was renamed AFUDVA in September the following year.
AFUDVA, like the Mingahyop and Yugahyup (associations of families of victims persecuted or killed in the democratization movement), is characterized by the fact that it is another mothers' movement. For these women, most of them housewives, the sudden death of their sons fundamentally changed their lives. Every day is a living hell, because on top of their immeasurable grief at the unfairness of their sons' deaths while serving in the army, they have to cope with the perfunctory conclusion of suicide forced on them. But these women received strength and consolation as they meet others suffering the same fate. Others may ask, "Haven't you done enough?" But the families can wordlessly share their sorrow over something they will never forget till the day they die. And above all, they realized through their meetings that what they had thought were unfortunate accidents were in fact not mere accidents. And this realization made it impossible for these ordinary housewives to continue leading ordinary lives.
Naturally, the mothers' first and foremost goal was to uncover the truth surrounding their sons' deaths and to restore their honor. Thus at first, there were members who did not care about other members' grief and suffering and simply took advantage of the organization to meet their own goals. But this attitude failed to solve a single case, and only sapped the mothers' strength. And slowly some people simply gave up, saying that they were just throwing eggs at a rock. But some of the mothers' consciousness changed.
"When I listen to the cases, whether it is mine or hers or some other new members', the stories are all the same. Those who join the group with new cases think that something can be achieved in the near future, but they are mistaken. We are trying to uncover something that the army is trying to cover up, and that's definitely not easy. But we keep it up, believing that if we keep trying, we can reveal little by little what they're trying to cover up. We have our livelihoods to worry about, and results are slow in appearing, so it's only natural that we get tired. And history has shown no hope. But that it is that very wrongful history we have to change, so that we don't pass it on to the next generation. That's why we have to take matters into our own hands, change laws, reform the military."
AFUDVA activities became a movement when the mothers began a conscious resistance. They became a social force, going out onto the streets to collect signatures and hold rallies and appeal to legislators on the National Assembly National Defense Committee. They turned into activists themselves. And like the Wednesday protest rallies by the ex-comfort women grandmas, they held protests in front of the Ministry of National Defense every last Tuesday of the month. Twelve of the families are currently engaged in a lawsuit against the state regarding the deaths of their sons. On June 5, AFUDVA also held the second annual joint commemoration ceremony for the victims of unexplained deaths and violence in the army in front of Jongmyo Park, followed by a protest march.
AFUDVA members have also formed their own five-member investigation team. Whenever a new case is filed, the team will apply for reinvestigations with the army and visit the camp to launch their own investigations. But most of the time, the site of the accident is cleaned up by the time the team arrives, and the army authorities forbid entry and photography citing security reasons. The authorities are extremely sensitive about the mothers holding interviews with the soldiers.
"To deal with the case in a transparent manner, the victim's family and a third party investigation team should visit the site and reenact the accident in order to discover the truth. But the army deletes all facts that may put the army at a disadvantage and refuses to show everything to the family. If we protest, they just pretend to listen and pretend to disclose everything when they're not. In January, they even detained us for demanding that they give us back our videotapes."
On January 21, AFUDVA members visited the camp of private Kim Byeong Min in order to listen to the briefing by the army authorities regarding his death. Armed soldiers who wanted to confiscate the videotape, which the mothers had filmed during the briefing, detained the women for some 16 hours. This incident is a revealing example of the army's closed-up and violent nature. In the process of investigating their sons' deaths, the mothers became aware of violence within the army and expanded their concerns to include the problem of violence.
"The army is a very closed-up place. It is impossible to know from the outside what is happening inside. They say that things have improved, but nothing has changed even with the inauguration of the civilian government. Students don't know the real picture. According to last year's parliamentary inspection reports, over 5,000 people become mentally ill every year due to battery, abuse and harassment in the army. There are many cases of sexual violence as well; it's just that we don't know about it. Until now, only AFUDVA has started this movement, but we are planning to expand our activities to include prevention of violence in the army. We will publish a handbook on how to prevent and deal with violence in the army and give them out at the training camp, as well as tour army camps to give lectures on how to prevent violence. We are also going to hold seminars for the families on problems and legalities regarding the military."
AFUDVA members say that cases of battery have decreased since they started their activities. According to past parliamentary inspection reports, battery cases, which exceeded 300 every year, have started decreasing from 1998, recording 182 in 2000. But the number of alleged suicide cases is slowly increasing every year.
"The increase in suicide numbers is a reflection of how distorted the army's investigations are. It also means that our group has more to do. We have to step up our publicity and fight harder."
Mothers who were once just passive victims have risen to the challenge of reforming the army and eradicating violence. How much longer do they have to be deprived of an echo to their cries? The time has come for the government and military authorities to respond.
To report cases of unexplained deaths in the army, contact (02)777-6602 or www.kmid.org