06.04.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the Death of South Korea’s First Female Tank Driver

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On March 3, 2021, transgender girl Byun Hee-soo was found dead in her home. Why does much of South Korea and the rest of the world talk about this?

Byun’s case received widespread media attention at home and abroad because Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo, 22, was the first South Korean soldier to undergo sex reassignment surgery while on active duty (in late 2019) and expressed her desire to continue serving as a female soldier in her former position as a tank driver mechanic in the military.

Under South Korea’s conscription system, all able-bodied men are required to serve for about two years. Those who change their gender are automatically exempt from service, but there are no rules prohibiting transgender people from joining the military.  Though, so far, there were no transgender soldiers.

It was therefore expected that the decision in this unprecedented case would affect the general rights of transgender South Koreans. However, on January 22, 2020, she was forcibly discharged, deeming the case a reason for her inability to continue serving because of her mental and physical disabilities. To put it crudely, sex reassignment surgery was equated with loss of manhood as a result of an accident and she discharged from the army as an invalid.

On July 3, 2020, the Personnel Committee did not overturn the decision.  “The decision to discharge in January 2020 was legally made in accordance with the medical examination standard and discharge procedures based on the current Military Personnel Management Act. The decision to dismiss her was not deemed illegal.”

In response, Byun and the civic group supporting her filed an administrative lawsui. In their opinion, there is no basis under current law for dismissing Byun from military service. Interestingly, they were supported by the Open Society Foundation, an international network founded by prominent investor George Soros, and a group of experts at the UN Human Rights Council sent a letter to the Korean government stating that the decision to forcibly dismiss Byun violated international human rights laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual identity.

On December 18, 2020, the human rights organization National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRC) said that Pyong’s forced dismissal was a human rights violation by government agencies.

In February 2021, the NHRC again recommended that the Army reverse its decision to dismiss Byun Hee-soo and revise the relevant regulations to prevent a recurrence. But despite the human rights organization’s recommendation, the Army argued that “the dismissal of the former staff sergeant was a legitimate administrative decision made in accordance with the relevant laws”.

And so on March 3, 2021, Byun Hee-soo was found dead. Byun has been out of contact since February 28, and her psychologist called the police. No suicide note was found, and the police are investigating the circumstances of the death. But since the local psychiatric clinic reported that Byun had tried to commit suicide three months ago, the main hypothesis remains that it was one.

On March 4, the Defense Ministry expressed its condolences “for the unfortunate death of the late former Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo,” Col. Moon Hong-sik, deputy spokesman for the ministry, said during another press briefing. Asked to comment on a possible recall of transgender people serving in the military, Moon said the department has not had detailed discussions on the issue.

Unfortunately, the story of the confrontation between transgender people and the military system ended tragically: it is highly probable that the girl committed suicide, not being able to withstand the social pressure.

Since the first trial in the case was due next month, her sudden death came as a shock to the community. The Progressive Small Opposition Justice Party, who are working to create a law completely banning all discrimination for any reason, including gender and sexual orientation, sharply criticized the military for not accepting the NHRC’s recommendation. “The fact that she was transgender had never been a problem in fulfilling her dream of living as a human and a soldier. The problem was the unjust discrimination poured out against her. Her gender had nothing to do with her job of driving a tank in an armored unit… However, the military’s discriminatory views of transgender people unfairly deprived a soldier of a legitimate opportunity to show her ability.”

On the one hand, Byun’s desire to serve, despite her gender dysphoria, can’t help but inspire respect. Usually gender issues are used to dodge service.  Note that her immediate superiors went along with Byun, allowing her to go on vacation and have sex reassignment surgery. Dismissal in this context is a sure sign of discrimination.

On the other hand, there is a good question about the possibility of women serving not in the army in general, but in combat units with specific strains. As the author understands it, it was Byun’s desire to continue serving in the tank forces that was the problem.

Men and women are different in their hormonal backgrounds, and it’s not so much about sexism as it is about the fact that some things are better for some and some things are better for others. For example, if the women’s tank crews in the Israeli army ended up being more of a demonstration experiment, and it proved difficult for the women to carry the men’s workload all the time, there is another specific female unit that has been of much greater benefit to the State of Israel. These are observers who look through cameras at the border area with the Gaza Strip, monitoring any suspicious movement, including attempts to undermine the border. Here, due to their greater ability to concentrate and pay attention, women actually performed better than men.

On the third side, there remains the problem that the process of sex change and the associated hormone intake makes a person emotionally unstable and vulnerable for a period of time. Unfortunately, Byun’s suicide gave supporters of this viewpoint additional arguments.

Finally, it should be remembered that South Korean society is characterized by a certain level of homophobia, largely due to the prevalence of Christianity. Homophobic statements were made not only by right-wing or centrist politicians, but also by a formally left-wing president. When Moon was a presidential candidate in 2017, during a televised debate with rival candidates, he said he opposed discrimination against sexual minorities in principle, but also opposed homosexuality, especially in the military.

That’s why Byun’s story was immediately politicized, and the girl didn’t stand a chance. It is now clear how the servile administration fulfills the president’s personal desires, not only from the story of the closure of the nuclear power plant.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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