The issue of "at-risk" soldiers has made headlines after an Army conscript ran amok on Saturday, killing five comrades and injuring nine others.
The 22-year-old sergeant identified by his surname Lim was classified into the A group, who need most attention out of three, when he underwent his first personality test in April last year because he had great difficulties adjusting to military life. In another test in November, he was classified as B, a level lower.
The 22nd Infantry Division in Goseong, Gangwon Province, where Lim was stationed, has a whopping 1,800 soldiers who are classified into one of the three groups in need of special attention -- 300 in A, 500 in B and 1,000 soldiers in C. That amounts to 20 percent of the troops in the division.
In the entire Army, Navy and Air Force, an average of eight to 10 percent fall into either A or B categories.
Conscripts normally undergo three personality tests -- first during recruitment, second in basic training and third when they are stationed. But the test is often cursory and involves only a brief interview with an Army doctor. That needs to change.
Once conscripts are stationed, it is left to their battalion commanders to determine whether they are fit to serve or not. One soldier who went on a shooting rampage killing eight other soldiers in the DMZ in 2005 had passed his personality test with flying colors.
In 2007 the Army began to use outside experts to assess the psychological conditions of soldiers and counsel those who are having problems. But as of 2012 there were only 148 professional counselors for more than 600,000 troops.
The National Human Rights Commission pointed out that the number of such counselors needs at least to double to provide focused care for at-risk soldiers even once a month.
The military operate a training program for at-risk soldiers. But a survey by the commission found it to be largely ineffective. Outside experts are needed to create a better program. But it is equally important for frontline commanders to learn how to deal with the vast numbers of conscripts who are in some way troubled.