Mon, May 01, 2017 - Page 7 News List

S Korea military accused of cracking down on gay soldiers

Investigators are said to have asked gay soldiers questions about their sexual history and orientation, seized mobile phones without warrants and forced the men to identify gay soldiers on their contact lists and to confess to having sex with them

By Choe Sang-hun  /  NY Times News Service, SEOUL

Illustration: Yusha

At a time when South Korea is struggling to deter North Korea’s nuclear threats, human rights advocates say its military is targeting gay soldiers in its ranks.

In recent weeks, the army has focused on dozens of those soldiers in what rights groups say is a campaign against gay men in the 620,000-member military.

At least 32 have faced criminal charges of “sodomy or other disgraceful conduct,” according to the domestic news media and lawyers and rights advocates familiar with the cases.

On Tuesday night, the issue of gay rights became a focus in South Korea’s presidential race, when the candidate who leads in the polls, Moon Jae-in, joined some of the other contenders in saying that he opposed homosexuality.

Critics said the statement was a tactic to win support among conservative voters.

Moon made the comment during a debate in which the issue of the military’s treatment of gays was raised. Under the conscript system, all eligible men are required to serve about two years.

However, the Military Criminal Act outlaws sodomy and other unspecified “disgraceful conduct” between servicemen, whether or not there is mutual consent and whether or not that conduct takes place on military compounds. Those found to have violated the act face up to two years in prison.

The army declined to provide details on its investigation.

However, it said that it was not cracking down on gay soldiers; instead it said that it was trying to root out sodomy and other homosexual activities, which right-wing Christian groups have called a growing blight on its readiness to fight North Korea’s 1.2 million-member military.

However, in the past week, evidence has emerged to support the allegations by gay soldiers that investigators flouted the army’s own regulations on how to treat gay service members by preying upon the soldiers’ fear of shame and abuse if they are outed in the military.

Analysts and veterans said bullying, hazing and sexual violence were chronic problems in the South Korean army.

In a series of telephone conversations secretly recorded in March and last month, an army investigator warned a gay sergeant against seeking help from lawyers or the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.

In one conversation, the investigator complained that another gay soldier refused to cooperate with the inquiry and wanted to hire a lawyer.

“If he hires a lawyer, that means he is outing himself,” the investigator says in the recording, uploaded to the Web site of the Seoul-based Military Human Rights Center for Korea.

It is unknown how many gay soldiers were punished under the anti-sodomy law before the recent flurry of charges.

Gay soldiers said they feared that they were being scapegoated in the recent inquiry as part of an effort by the army to contain sexual abuse.

In a survey of 671 veterans commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission in 2004, more than 15 percent said they had been sexually abused.

Advocates say that by punishing gay soldiers, the government was sending the wrong message in South Korea, where the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are a largely taboo and politically unpopular subject. Powerful right-wing Christian groups have intensified a campaign against homosexuality, scuttling a bill that would have given sexual minorities the same protection as other minorities.

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