During a meeting with the country’s top military leaders on August 4, 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated that the Republic of Korea’s armed forces must work to regain the people’s trust. The armed forces have been undermined by several recent incidents, most notably a high-profile sex scandal.
Recall that it all began on May 25, 2021, with the suicide of a female Air Force sergeant named Lee, who was sexually assaulted by a male colleague named Chan while driving after a drinking session on the night of March 2. The military’s attempt to cover up both the molestation and the incident caused the suicide. Family members of the victim claim that investigators from the Air Force prosecutor’s office did not launch an immediate investigation and tried to hush up the sexual harassment case, convincing the victim to reach a settlement with the perpetrator, who was arrested much later and had the opportunity to destroy the evidence. This was also the position of the deceased’s superiors and co-workers. Eventually, 15 days after the incident, she was transferred to another unit, but even there, she faced abuse and ostracism, after which she committed suicide, writing in her suicide note that she was “abandoned by the organization.”
This is not the first case of sexual violence in the army. According to a 2019 National Human Rights Commission survey, only 48.9 percent of female soldiers claimed that the military handles sexual harassment and assault complaints fairly. This figure is down from 75.8% in 2012. The number of aggravated sexual assault cases increased from three in 2019 to sixteen in 2020, and sexual harassment cases increased from 44 to 55 during the same period.
But according to human rights circles, the fundamental problem is not the system but the military’s practice of covering up issues and spreading distorted gender stereotypes. As a result, many cases of sexual crimes in the military have been solved not by prosecutors but by human rights activists. Another factor underlying this problem is the traditionally light sentences awarded by military courts, which sent perpetrators to prison only in 175 of the 1,708 sex-crime cases it handled from 2015 to 2020. This ratio is 10.2%, which is significantly lower than the 25.2% ratio for civilian cases.
As of June 24, there were officially 13 servicemen under investigation in the case of the female Air Force sergeant named Lee, including a military prosecutor and a public defender, accused of failing to assist the victim adequately. Four were arrested, and six others were fired from their posts. On July 9, after a month-long investigation, ten people were charged.
The Department of Defense said it would seek the firing of nine more people, including the chief of the 20th Fighter Wing, where the incident occurred, and would refer 16 others to a disciplinary committee. A total of 38 people will be investigated or disciplined, the highest number per incident.
On July 19, a woman, Navy Colonel Ko Min-sook, head of the Navy Staff Prosecutor’s Office, was appointed as the special prosecutor for the investigation. As a special prosecutor, Ko can report her findings directly to the secretary of defense and focus on alleged violations by the Air Force’s legal affairs bureau, which failed to adequately oversee the initial investigation into the incident in March. In the civilian sector, such prosecutors are often appointed to investigate internal corruption and other sensitive cases.
The scandal is intensified because “Month of Vigilance” revealed quite a few other stories in the process. On June 16, the Department of Defense extended the special reporting period for military sexual assault cases by two weeks to June 30.
Service members who had suffered or witnessed sexual assault could report it by phone, e-mail, or an anonymous bulletin board on the Department of Defense Web site. As a result, at least 15 more cases of sexual violence were reported, 10 of which were referred for an official investigation.
On the other hand, the author is interested in what will be done to extract the roots of the problem. The government belatedly created a task force to develop measures to reform the system of sexual violence prevention in the armed forces. This group will focus on measures to protect and support victims of sexual violence, improve the military’s organizational culture, and ensure transparency and fairness in investigations. It has already discovered that Lee’s story is “the inevitable result of the military’s perverse gender insensitivity and a closed and hierarchical macho culture that views female service members only as sexual objects, not as colleagues.”
If outside institutions, such as civilian investigative teams and civilian ombudsmen, were introduced, sexual crimes in the military would likely be detected and dealt with more objectively with little military intervention. Unless a system is in place to prevent concealment and reconciliation, such incidents will recur. In this context, on June 8, the Democratic Party proposed that trials related to sexual offenses in the military be handled under the civilian criminal justice system.
The Department of Defense, on the other hand, emphasizes that “it is necessary to reduce the influence of commanders in the criminal justice process and meet planned reform goals to guarantee independence and fairness in the investigation and trial process.” According to the ministry, proposed reform measures include transferring appellate cases to the Seoul High Court and appointing civilian legal experts as military judges to prevent commanders from influencing trials.
In addition, the culture of victim-blaming, in which victims are often ridiculed for not being more careful in their behavior, must be eradicated.
Such recommendations seem reasonable, and the only question is whether they will be applied in practice or whether, once the campaigning has passed, everything will subside until the next high-profile tragedy.
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”.