SEOUL (Reuters) - Oh Ju-ri, the mother of two sons doing their compulsory South Korean military service, naturally worries about their health and safety — but especially now.
Bullying, suspicious suicides and shooting incidents in the military have left many parents fretting over the fate of their conscripted sons, and they are now turning to a new Internet service to keep tabs on them.
In July, telecoms company LG Uplus launched an internet-based free TV channel that lets recruits at army boot camps broadcast live, a service that the 50-year-old mother of two conscripts wants to use to check on her sons.
Oh also meets other mothers online so they can share news, concerns and a snapshot at the boot camp on the Web - glimpses that might answer a mother’s questions: Is he eating OK? Is he losing weight? Does he look happy?
“I can share everything from joy, sorrow to happiness on the web and all mothers and fathers who never met each other can be connected,” Oh said.
“More importantly, we, online, can find out if our sons are okay.”
South Korean law requires all young men to serve around two years of military duty as the Korean peninsula is technically still at war.
But last month’s shooting spree at a Marine Corps base that left four dead, and mysterious suicide incidents, have sparked debate over military reforms, as well as parents’ interest in — and worry about — the fate of their sons.
According to the Ministry of National Defense, 82 soldiers committed suicide last year, about two thirds of the total death toll among serving military.
Now more parents are becoming involved in hundreds of online groups that have been set up for them to find out more about their 20-something sons in the country’s 650,000-strong forces. Some supervisors even upload photos of recruits on the sites.
However, experts say those efforts are not enough, saying the South Korean military itself needs to do things such as allowing conscripts to use the cell phone network and internet freely, the way professional soldiers can. Security reasons are cited for the ban.
Others say that giving the young men weekend breaks could help ease the atmosphere of the barracks where most of them live and sleep.
“This is not a prison camp. Just as they do in the United States, we have to enable young military men to go out on weekends, “ said Lim Tae-hoon, president at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea.
Jung Jung-yong, whose son went into the army last year, also calls for change to help parents worrying about their offspring.
“To make the military system more advanced in technology, I want every base to be connected with each online group and to converse with group members,” said Jung, who posts in an online group or chats with online friends almost every day.
“These online communities should play a more active role.”
Although her sons’ air force bases are offering tours for parents as well as newsletters, Oh plans to keep using the web until her two sons are discharged.
“Now I can’t give up on connecting to the web because I’m desperate to find out how they are after sending them off to the military,” she added.
Editing by David Chance and Elaine Lies