South Korean air force officer’s death sees 15 people charged

South Korean military parade. File image
South Korea’s military has been questioned for a number of years over its failure to protect female personnel

Fifteen people have been charged in South Korea over the death of an air force officer who alleged sexual abuse by a colleague and took her own life.

Dozens of air force officials will also face disciplinary action, including for trying to cover up the case. It had sparked a public outcry and the air force chief resigned in June.

Separately, a court ruled the military had unlawfully discriminated against a transgender soldier who was forced to quit and was later found dead at home.

The cause of death of Byun Hee-soo, South Korea’s first transgender soldier, has not officially been given but it is reported she took her own life.

South Korea’s military has been questioned for a number of years over its failure to protect female personnel.

Amid a number of sexual abuse cases involving the military, lawmakers this year passed legislation requiring them to be addressed by civilian courts.

In March, the air force master sergeant had been returning by car to base from a dinner meeting when she was allegedly abused in the vehicle by a male colleague.

She reported the case to superior officers, but the investigation found that they tried to cover up the incident and force her into a private settlement with the colleague. She took her own life in May.

President Moon Jae-in apologised over the case and accepted the resignation of Chief of Staff Gen Lee Seong-yong, who said he took “heavy responsibility” for the officer’s death.

A male master sergeant was arrested in June over the abuse allegation and legal proceedings continue. President Moon ordered the investigation after hundreds of thousands signed a petition over the case.

In addition to those charged, dozens more will face disciplinary action. Issues will include trying to cover up the case, trying to pressure the woman to reach a private settlement with her abuser and the destruction or leaking of evidence.

In the second case, a court in Seoul ruled that Staff Sgt Byun Hee-soo had been wrongfully discharged and her dismissal should be annulled. It said the military’s classification of her gender reassignment surgery as a disability was highly discriminatory.

Staff Sgt Byun, 23, had launched a landmark legal challenge against the military in January last year after her request for transfer to the female corps was rejected and she was dismissed. She died in March this year.

The Daejeon District Court ruled there were “no mental or physical disability grounds for dismissal”.

Transgender people are unable to join South Korea’s military, but there is no specific law on gender reassignment operations for serving personnel. Activists welcomed the latest ruling, saying it gave grounds for hope among sexual minorities.

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