After one well-known story about “mass rapes in the DPRK Army,” the author is trying to keep track of how a similar situation looks occurring in the South Korean Army, and thankfully when describing that he does not have to solely rely on the tearful and unreliable stories told by defectors, but on more valid sources.
Scandals related to harassment periodically ripple through the South Korean Army, and one of them is developing right now: this story became public after one female soldier, whose last name was not reported, committed suicide.
In March 2021, a victim that held the rank of master sergeant and was serving in Seosan was sexually harassed by a man who is still identified just as “Master Sergeant Chan” (special permission is required to publicly disclose full names in South Korea). The harassment incident happened in a car, as the aggressor and the victim were going back to their military base after a private meeting that she had to attend, officials said.
According to relatives of the deceased, the next day she reported the incident to the authorities, but the military did not take the appropriate measures to protect the victim that are spelled out in the relevant instructions. Chan, along with members of his family and senior officers, tried to sweep the incident under the rug instead, and persuade her to “reach an agreement” with the perpetrator and drop her complaint; this started by simply sending her off on two months’ leave. According to her statement, she was subsequently transferred to another unit, although the incriminating evidence included an audio recording from the car’s video recorder where everything had transpired.
However, in her new location, the officers there immediately began to treat her as a “troublemaker” who dared to wash her dirty linen in public, and three days after the transfer on May 22 – and on the next day after the deceased had married her boyfriend – she was found dead at the base by a fellow soldier. This is strange in and of itself, but, when news on the woman’s death went up the echelons of command, nobody said anything about sexual harassment, so before her father began making a fuss over it, it looked like suicide without any known reason.
In the meantime, Chan was not taken into custody, nor did anyone even seize his mobile phone until the end of May, although he had admitted to some of the charges. Owing to that, the victim’s father posted a petition on the presidential administration’s online bulletin board that leveled criticism at the Air Force for covering up the incident.
After that, naturally, the system instantly sprang into action the way it is supposed to. On June 2, 2021, military prosecutors requested that an arrest warrant be issued for Chan, and took him into custody on charges of sexual assault and inflicting bodily injury.
On that same day, June 2, Defense Minister Suh Wook met with family members of the deceased officer, promising to conduct a transparent, thorough investigation so that there would be no room for any doubts. After an hour-long meeting behind closed doors with the minister, the victim’s mother lost consciousness after sobbing in front of her daughter’s portrait, and was then transferred to the hospital.
On June 3, President Moon Jae-in firmly ordered that an investigation be conducted, and strict measures be taken, while Air Force Commander General Lee Seong-yong called for zero tolerance toward sexual crimes, as well as tougher discipline. “It is heartbreaking to think of the victim, who must have been desperate,” Moon stated, according to AP spokesperson Park Kyung-mee.
After receiving this impetus, the military prosecutor’s office, police, and defense ministry formed a joint investigative team to look into the case from scratch and bring in outside experts. The ministry’s Department of Social Services will be responsible for providing full-scale support to the families of these victims, and the Ministry of Defense has, for the first time, set up an investigative committee with participation on the part of civilian experts to ensure that the investigation is executed transparently and thoroughly. Searches, questioning sessions, and document confiscation have begun in the troop units.
That same day, on June 3, the family’s lawyer reported that the deceased was sexually harassed twice, and not only by Chan, but also by two senior officers, with one of them the same officer who tried to cover up the incident involving Chan.
On June 4, General Lee Seong-yong announced his resignation as South Korea’s air force chief, and shouldered the blame himself: “I feel very responsible for what happened,” Lee Seong-yong stated at a press conference. He also expressed his condolences to the family of the deceased. The question of Suh Wook’s resignation also came up, but so far the representative from the Blue House has declared that the decision will be made after all the relevant investigations are completed.
In addition, the ministry will also allot a two-week special period of inquiry into sexual harassment cases in the military to check whether there are any other incidents of sexual assault that have occurred in its barracks. Personnel that have either suffered or witnessed sexual assault can report it by phone or email.
Along the way, it became clear that this kind of story is not the only one. The Air Force is also investigating a case in which a sergeant in Jeonju-si allegedly broke into the apartments of his female colleagues and unlawfully photographed their bodies and underwear in the middle of the night. At least six female military personnel have been victimized, and that number could rise even more, since he is suspected of committing these acts against civilians as well. The Air Force tried to settle the matter by moving the lawbreaker to another job, without arresting him, despite the fact that the military police uncovered dozens of illegal photographs stored in the sergeant’s cell phone, and on USB devices.
The Marine Corps also received criticism after KBS reported that a male soldier had been sexually assaulted by three fellow soldiers more than 130 times over six months. Later, all three were arrested and brought before a military court, but only one was given a prison sentence, with the other two receiving suspended sentences, since they joined the rape later on and were “still young”.
The history with rape in the South Korean Army has been discussed on a wide scale in the media outlets and on the Internet. According to The Korea Times, “the incident shows that a number of deep-seated problems related to sexual violence in the barracks have not yet been adequately addressed,” and “it is vital that we change our hierarchical and authoritarian culture in the military so that incidents of sexual violence have no place there.” The investigation has been labeled belated, and “the nation is seething with rage”.
As usual, the conservative JoongAng Ilbo is blaming the authorities for everything. “Weak discipline is nothing new. The reason for this is the absence of any military exercises held after the military agreement in Pyongyang on September 19, 2018 between South and North Korea on the sidelines of the inter-Korean summit … If you give priority to human rights and soldiers’ welfare rather than strict discipline, this poor state is inevitable for the Army.”
Some quite conservative publications are recalling how, in April last year, four sergeants sexually abused their lieutenant to humiliate him, and on a smartphone owned by one ordinary military prosecutor, about 1,000 files with child pornography were found that he had helped promote and distribute via Telegram.
How will it all end? The immediate culprit is likely to be punished to the fullest possible extent, and not for the sake of meting out justice, but rather for the purposes of showcasing. The person who sweeps the incident under the rug will be punished to a lesser degree. Some generals will resign as part of going through a ritual, accepting symbolic responsibility, and if the fuss turns out to be particularly great, then the Minister of Defense may be replaced as well. But this “month of vigilance” will pass, and everything will return to normal – until the next high-profile story, or until the next victim commits suicide, and the government does not pay sufficient attention to the problem. There is only one exception – when harassment is used to knock political opponents out of the game.
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”.