On Friday, military prosecutors sought the death penalty for Sergeant Lee (26), one of the four men charged with the murder of a junior soldier. The 23-year-old victim, identified only as Private Yoon, was beaten to death by Lee and his comrades. Prosecutors have sought life sentences for the other three men.

The army originally reported in April that Private Yoon died from asphyxiation after being hit in the chest by his colleagues while he was eating. The case initially drew little attention, overlooked as part of the harsh reality of serving in the Korean army. In August, however, a human rights group released details and photos of Yoon’s brutally bruised body, suggesting that Yoon had died from repeated blows to his head. It was revealed that Private Yoon endured such bullying and hazing for over a month, suffering daily beatings, abuse, and humiliation such as being forced to lick his sergeant’s spit off the ground and having ointment rubbed on his genitals. In one incident, Yoon was hooked up to an intravenous drip to prevent him from falling asleep during his beatings.

This incident has brought up two sensitive and controversial topics in Korea. The first is the Korean military’s harsh “barracks culture” and its resistance to change. Although the defense ministry has called for a human rights commission for the armed forces to curtail such abuses and has suspended duties for a day to lecture soldiers on human rights, this is not the first time a high profile incident led to promises of military reform. In 2005, the military promised to end its harsh practices after a soldier killed eight of his colleagues for tormenting him, and a captain was arrested for forcing conscripts to eat feces. In 2011, after a marine corporal killed four other soldiers for bullying him, the defense ministry once again promised to tackle the “distorted military culture” and brought out orders to ban beatings, cruelty, and bullying. Given previous history, it’s unclear whether Yoon’s death will have any meaningful impact on military abuse in the long run.

The second issue is Sergeant Lee’s potential sentence for his crimes. Although the death penalty is legal in South Korea, there have been no executions since 1997 due to a moratorium on executions enacted by President Kim Dae-jung. In 2010, the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Korea, ruled that the death penalty did not violate the Constitution in a controversial 5-4 vote. Should Sergeant Lee receive a death sentence, he will be the first person to receive the sentence since 2009, when Kang Ho-sun was sentenced to death for murdering ten women. If this were to happen, it would be sure to resurrect another intense debate on whether or not the death penalty has a place in South Korea.