South Korean soldiers man a position June 23 near the area where a fugitive soldier was hiding, not far from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, in Goseong, Gangwon province. (Yonhap / AFP)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — A South Korean military conscript who shot dead five members of his unit near the border with North Korea was captured Monday after wounding himself following a 24-hour standoff with thousands of troops.
The 22-year-old sergeant, who was cornered in a small forested area 10 kilometers (six miles) south of the heavily militarized border, had shot himself and had been taken to hospital, said Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok.
“We have retrieved his gun and all the ammunition he was carrying,” Kim told reporters.
Another ministry official said Lim had shot himself in the left chest and lost a lot of blood, but added that his condition was not considered life-threatening.
Thousands of soldiers backed by special forces units and army helicopters had surrounded Lim, since he was tracked down Sunday afternoon.
Armed with a K-2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition, he had gone on the run Saturday night after killing five fellow soldiers and wounding seven others at a frontline border outpost.
Before turning his gun on himself, Lim had spoken via mobile phone with his father and brother, both of whom had urged him to surrender.
An army officer who requested anonymity told Yonhap news agency that Lim had been in tears when he asked troops to hand the phone over to his family.
“He talked ... for several minutes, and they pleaded with him to surrender,” the officer was quoted as saying.
Lim had traded fire with his pursuers late Sunday before digging in for the night in a section of forest outside Myungpa-ri village in the eastern province of Gangwon.
One platoon leader was wounded in the arm in the exchange and the defense ministry said another soldier was wounded Monday by friendly fire.
Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.
The motive behind the shooting was unclear, but army sources said he had difficulty adapting to the military, and psychological evaluators had advised senior officers to pay him special attention.
The shooting spree triggered a massive military manhunt involving more than 4,000 soldiers.
Around 500 village residents, most of them elderly, were evacuated from their homes to a school as a precaution.
Bullying In The Barracks
Lim’s attack on his fellow soldiers occurred at a guard post just outside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — a buffer strip that runs the full length of the 250-kilometer (155-mile) inter-Korean frontier.
Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.
Many of the South Korean soldiers on border duty are young male recruits doing their mandatory two-year military service.
These young men make up a large part of the South’s 691,000-strong troop presence, compared with 1.17 million in the North.
Most of the victims in Saturday’s shooting were conscripts, aged from 19 to 23.
The defense ministry made a “sincere apology” over the incident.
“We pray for the souls of the victims and express our deepest regret for the victims, the injured and their families,” it said.
Bullying and cruelty in the barracks have long tarnished the armed forces, and been blamed for suicides and similar shooting incidents.
In July 2011 a 19-year-old marine conscript killed four colleagues in a shooting spree on Ganghwa Island near the border.
In June 2005 eight soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded when a 22-year-old conscript threw a grenade and sprayed bullets over sleeping colleagues at a frontline guard post north of Seoul.
In both those cases the men were court-martialed and sentenced to death, although the penalty was not carried out.
The armed forces have in recent years taken steps to stamp out bullying, which they called part of a “distorted military culture.”