05.08.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Sex and Violence in the South Korean Army – Investigations are Ongoing


It often happens that, after describing a loud scandal when it only flares up, the author abandons the topic, and the audience never finds out how it ended. Avoiding this, the author tries from time to time to look at the development of the sad stories he wrote about earlier – for example, about the problem of sexual violence in the Army of the Republic of Korea.

Let’s start with the most publicized suicide of Lee Ye-ram, a female servicemember of one of the Air Force units, with which a series of scandals began. The 23-year-old Lee committed suicide in May, three months after she was allegedly harassed by a colleague of the same rank with the surname Chang. According to the victim’s family, after she reported the incident, her superiors did not take appropriate measures, but several times tried to convince her to make an arrangement with the suspect and not to report this case to the authorities. After the sexual violence, Lee took a two-month leave of absence, and then was transferred to another unit. A few days later, she registered a marriage with her fiancé, but committed suicide the next day.

Chang was arrested only after the case became known to the media. In addition to Chang, two sergeants were arrested for trying to convince the victim to drop the complaint, and also allegedly harassing Lee in 2019 and 2020. One of them, surnamed No, committed suicide in July while in custody.

Lee’s death sparked intense public fury, which led to former Air Force Chief of Staff Lee Seong-yong resigning and President Moon Jae-in publicly apologizing.

In August 2021, the National Assembly approved a revision of the military justice system, according to which military sex crimes should be tried in civilian courts, not in a military tribunal.

On October 1, 2021, the Air Force launched a new investigation unit under the direct control of the headquarters in order to better guarantee the independence of investigators. Previously, the military police in each Air Force unit had the authority to conduct an investigation, but such investigations could not be free from the influence of their unit commanders. On October 7, 2021, military prosecutors demanded a 15-year prison sentence for Sergeant Chang and charged only 15 of the 25 servicemen who were detained in connection with their alleged involvement in this case, dropping criminal charges against the remaining 10 citing lack of evidence.

Moreover, the Ministry of Defense inspection team was unable to bring charges against the military police or the prosecutors of the 20th Fighter Wing, who initially reviewed the sexual harassment report submitted by the victim, despite accusations that they ignored the findings. The inspection team charged the chief of the military police department of the Air Force Headquarters, but he was charged only with submitting a false report related to this case, and not that he was responsible for the unsuccessful investigation.

The victim’s father called for an independent lawyer to investigate his daughter’s death, saying he could not trust the actions of the military.

On December 17 Sergeant Chang was sentenced to nine years in prison, but on December 23 prosecutors filed an appeal.     On June 14, 2022, the Military Court of Appeal replaced Sergeant Chang’s nine-year term with seven years.  The court stated that the accused could not be solely responsible for her death, stressing that the victim was also not provided with adequate protection in the armed forces.

This decision provoked an angry reaction from the victim’s family.

On June 28, 2022, an independent investigative group of lawyers, established on the instructions of Parliament, raided the headquarters of the Air Force, as well as the 20th Fighter Wing and the 15th Special-mission Wing in search of materials related to the investigation. Thus, almost a year has passed, and the investigation is still ongoing.

However, the Lee Ye-ram case has become the backdrop for a number of similar stories that follow almost the same scenario: a sex crime – low-quality investigation or attempts to hush up the case – the victim receives “secondary harm” due to excessive publicity, rumors or ostracism for taking the trash out of the hut and commits suicide.

In the midst of the hype over the Lee case, a similar incident occurred in a Navy unit. On August 12, 2021, a female sergeant, who had previously reported sexual harassment by a senior colleague, committed suicide at the unit perimeter. It is known that the harassment events occurred on May 27, but the victim was transferred to another unit only on August 9, after which she filed an official complaint, and the military police took up the investigation. As it became known later, the victim immediately reported the incident to the immediate superior, but did not want an official complaint to be filed at that time, and the chief gave the suspect only a verbal warning. Judging by the messages exchanged between the victim and her family, until August 9, she was apparently harassed, isolated and suspended from work, while remaining in the same unit as the suspect.

The incident was taken under the strict control of high management. President Moon Jae-in demanded the most thorough and detailed investigation, and on August 13, Defense Minister Suh Wook again had to apologize to the family members of the deceased and the public.

On August 17, the Navy military police stated that it accused the commander of the unit of the deceased and another officer of violating their obligations to protect the identity of the informant. Since they knowingly or unwittingly informed other members of her unit about the case of harassment, although she had asked to keep that matter a secret.

On August 24, 2021, a similar incident occurred in the ground forces. A female sergeant was hospitalized after several suicide attempts. According to the victim, for several months she was subjected to constant and repeated sexual harassment by a first-class sergeant after she rejected his advances. In August 2020, the victim reported the incident to the head of his unit, but the case did not receive a proper review, since the offender was dismissed from the army in early September as a disciplinary measure. No criminal case was initiated. Only later did civil prosecutors charge him and put him on trial. The army stated the staff sergeant had not indicated she wanted to press criminal charges, but her family said she had never received a proper explanation. The woman’s family said that the army department and the legal staff responsible for counseling and investigation showed irresponsibility and inappropriateness in dealing with these issues. The victim and the perpetrator should have been separated immediately, but this happened only two weeks after the woman filed the application. The woman handed over the letters of the first-class sergeant and other documents to the unit staff, but when she asked for the documents to be returned, the staff reportedly refused, citing an unlikely excuse that the documents had been “washed away by the rain”. A full-fledged investigation began only in November, when the woman personally hired a private lawyer and filed a complaint with the investigative authorities.

On September 7, 2021, the human rights group cited several examples of bullying not only female, but also male servicemembers. In one case, a sailor committed suicide four months after he was assigned to a destroyer, where he was allegedly subjected to bullying and insults.

The Marine Corps also received criticism after KBS reported in June 2021 that a male soldier had been sexually assaulted by senior soldiers more than 130 times over six months. The three rapists 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 were “too young”.

It is no coincidence that the series “D.P.”, based on the popular webtoon, about soldiers tracking down military deserters who flee the army after constant physical and verbal violence and abuse of power by their superiors, is so popular in the Republic of Korea. The series describes both violence in the South Korean armed forces and how senior officers try to hide hazing scandals, as violent incidents can damage their chances of promotion.

It cannot be said that the authorities are not doing anything. On August 17, the Minister of Defense of 2021 ordered to take measures to protect victims of sexual violence even before they file an official complaint.

On October 13, 2021, a civilian group tasked with improving human rights conditions in the armed forces proposed a set of measures to better protect victims of sexual violence in barracks and prevent the infliction of additional harm on them. The group recommended that the military separate the victim of sexual violence from the alleged perpetrator before the investigation is completed and clearly define who is responsible for protecting the victim from additional harm, for example, ostracism in the barracks, as well as develop strict penalties for such damage.

It is also stated that, although high-profile cases attract attention, the number of suicides in the army is on the wane – 42 soldiers died as a result of suicide in 2020, which is significantly less than 97 in 2011.

Meanwhile, according to the author’s feelings, the number of such crimes will grow. Firstly, the demographic situation in the country will require more female specialists. Secondly, the younger generation of men aged 20-30 remains under the influence of “anti-feminist” rhetoric and certain complexes, the consequence of which is an increase in sexual crimes not only in the army. Thirdly, inertia and corporatism are a serious obstacle in the investigation of crimes of this type.  Note that in all cases, serious investigations begin only after the suicide of the victim.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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