This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
The harrowing discrimination against gay and trans members of the South Korean military has been brought to light by a recent report by Amnesty International. The non-profit spoke to 21 current and former conscripts who described a widespread culture of sexual harassment and assault, much of which took place at the hands of high-ranking soldiers.
While sexual activity between men isn’t criminalized outside of the military, Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act makes it punishable during their service. Amnesty International’s report, which calls for the repeal of the law, argues that it “[targets] LGBTI people inside and outside the military” and fuels the culture of harassment.
The soldiers most at risk of abuse are reportedly those who identify as transgender. Trans women are acknowledged by the South Korean military as having a “gender identity disorder” and are forced to serve as men.
Edhi Park, one such soldier, said she was ordered to act more masculine by lowering her voice and behaving like a man during her time in service.
“I don’t know why I had to be treated this way, with regular harassment,” she said. “I am more than qualified and effectively completed my duty.”
The stigma against gay and transexual people in the South Korean military has reached toxic and violent levels of bullying. So much so that even those who aren’t gay can be treated as such if their fellow soldiers perceive them to be.
One incident, reported by a soldier referred to as “U,” recounted how he tried to stop the abuse of a low-ranking conscript by other soldiers. The soldier in question would be sexually abused, attacked, and forced to drink from a toilet bowl. When “U” intervened, he became a target himself. He and the original victim were forced to have sex, as the other soldiers watched and ridiculed them.
This incident led “U” and the other soldier to attempt suicide. The number of suicides in the military as a whole continues to skyrocket. In 2018, the number of suicides in the first three months of the year was three times as much as it was in 2017.
Several of these soldiers are subsequently sent to military mental health facilities or “healing camps.” They are often labeled as “unfit for service”, or given the label of being mentally unwell.
"U" and Edhi Park's stories are just two of the many others conveying the torture – mental and physical – that soldiers undergo.
The discrimination and abuse fostered by Article 92-6 endure, despite the military passing a directive for greater protection laws for gay soldiers in 2009. Same-sex relations between soldiers are labeled as “disgraceful conduct.” These are the same terms used for sexual assault.
The government states that Article 92-6 is non-discriminatory, as its purpose is “to uphold military order and discipline.” Still, the implementation of such acts prompts a widespread belief that discrimination against gay and trans soldiers is acceptable.
“The military environment makes it okay to discriminate against LGBTI people, and so it becomes sort of a tacit approval that can continue outside and in broader society,” said Roseann Rife who led the report and acts as Amnesty International's research director for East Asia.
South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 are duty-bound to join the country’s military service for at least 21 months at a stretch. Avoiding conscription can result in prison time. According to CNN, the total personnel in the military is estimated to be 630,000. Part of the motivation for mandatory conscription is the ongoing war with North Korea, which has technically been taking place for decades.
Rife acknowledged that the country’s government is cognizant of the ongoing issue, but has not made steps in regards to legal repercussions.
South Korea’s Constitutional Court is once again in the midst of deciding whether the criminalization of same-sex sexual activity by military personnel is constitutional. The court has ruled in favor of criminalization three times since 2002.