South Korea: Criminalization of sex between men in military fuels violence, abuse, and discrimination

Gay and trans soldiers in South Korea face violence, harassment and pervasive discrimination due to the criminalization of consensual sex between men in the military, Amnesty International said as it released a new report outlining why this unjust law must be abolished.

Serving in Silence: LGBTI People in South Korea’s Military reveals the destructive impact criminalizing consensual same-sex activity in South Korea’s military has on LGBTI people. Article 92-6 of the country’s Military Criminal Act punishes sexual relations between men in the military, either on or off duty, with up to two years in prison under an “indecent acts” clause.

“South Korea’s military must stop treating LGBTI people as the enemy. The criminalization of same-sex sexual activity is devastating for the lives of so many LGBTI soldiers and has repercussions in the broader society,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

“This hostile environment fosters abuse and bullying of young men who stay silent out of fear of reprisals. It is long overdue for the military to acknowledge that a person’s sexual orientation is totally irrelevant to their ability to serve.”

In South Korea, it is compulsory for all men to perform a minimum 21 months of military service. Criminalization creates an environment where discrimination is tolerated, and even encouraged, based solely on who someone is. Though criminalization is only applicable within the military, the fact that approximately half of the population goes through compulsory military service early in life means that criminalization has a significant social impact. Many former and current soldiers consider this to be toxic.

Violence and rape

Soldiers who spoke to Amnesty International said they experienced intimidation, violence, and isolation as a result of the criminalization of sex between men in the military.

“U”, a former soldier who served about a decade ago, recalled how he was driven to attempt suicide because of the abuse he suffered: “One night, I saw a soldier being sexually abused. When he got angry, the person abusing him who was his senior started to beat him fiercely and forced him to drink from the toilet bowl. A few days later, the abused soldier made up his mind to report the incident and approached me for my help.”

When the higher-ranking soldier heard about the possible report, he threatened to beat “U” so badly he would not recover.

According to “U”: “I was then subjected to physical violence and humiliation for three hours, which included being forced to have oral and anal sex with the original victim while the senior soldier made taunting remarks, such as: ‘Don’t you want to have sex with a woman-like man?’”

Many soldiers told Amnesty International that sexual violence is committed against actual or perceived gay men in the military. The abuse is usually portrayed as punishment for soldiers “not being masculine enough,” “signs” of which include walking in an “effeminate” manner, having fairer skin or speaking in a higher-pitched voice.

Mental health

Several gay soldiers told Amnesty International they were sent to military mental health facilities or so-called “green camps” or “healing camps.”

After suffering repeated sexual assaults, Jeram became physically and mentally unwell. He was given the option of either entering a mental hospital within the military or remaining in a cell with limited access to the outside.

“The hospital tried to diagnose me as ‘unfit for service’, with staff members even instructing me how to act mentally incompetent so that I could get discharged,” Jeram recalled.

“I refused to be labelled in this way. I felt I had lived my life well prior to the military and knew that I was not the source of the problem. This whole experience led me to attempt suicide because I lost the will to live.”

Jeram told Amnesty International how one member of the panel reviewing his discharge told him: “Even if I shoot you here, it will simply be covered up as a suspicious death and that will be it. Then, the compensation your family would receive will be even lower than for a military dog, which is 2 million KRW (about US $2,000).”
Read more via Amnesty International