Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Feature: Former officer in a war with Korean military

BATTLE AGAINST SEXISM Pi Woo-jin's sympathizers formed a fan club after she published a rare book that criticized the armed forces' attitude on female officers

AFP , SEOUL

Pi Woo-jin, a 52-year-old South Korean army pilot who was discharged after almost 28 years following surgery for breast cancer, stands in front of a statue commemorating the 1950-53 Korean War in Seoul on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

A female officer who was discharged from South Korea's army after almost 28 years following surgery for breast cancer is now leading a campaign to change the military's macho culture.

Pi Woo-jin, who became famous as the army's first woman helicopter pilot, was ordered to retire on Nov. 30 on medical grounds, despite a three-week hike around the nation to prove she is fully fit.

The lieutenant-colonel filed a petition against her dismissal, but it was rejected by the defense ministry -- sparking a heated response from rights activists and supporters who staged protests demanding her reinstatement.

"I will not give up because I have been watched by many female officers and also by those suffering from cancer," she told reporters, vowing to file a lawsuit with an administrative court.

Activists say the case illustrates prejudice against women in South Korea and gender discrimination in the military, which has no enlisted female soldiers.

"Pi's case shows deep-rooted prejudice in the military as well as how female officers have been discriminated against," said Lee Un-hee, of Citizens' Solidarity for Human Rights.

Pi, 52, grabbed the media spotlight last month when she published a rare book criticizing the sexual discrimination which she says the armed forces' 4,000 female officers, including 17 pilots, have to face.

Under an obligatory conscription system, only men are drafted for more than two years of service, while women who volunteer become officers.

Moon Mee-kyung, an expert in military gender issues at the Korean Women's Development Institute, said women must endure tough conditions to survive as career army officers.

"There is no noticeable discrimination against low-ranking officers. But most female officers are usually sidelined from key field posts, leading to delayed promotion," Moon said.

"Tough conditions and a lack of facilities for women are an important problem to be addressed by the military," she said.

Pi's supporters have formed a fan club, describing her as a crusader in fighting gender discrimination in South Korea, which remains a fundamentally Confucian society despite swift social change.

Pi said she never married due to a regulation at the time that pregnant pilots must be discharged. The rule was abolished in 1989 but she decided to remain single to dedicate herself to her job.

She returned to duty in October after her long hike, but the military retired her under a regulation that any service member with missing body parts must be discharged.

"The army retired me improperly because it did not conduct a prior medical check to see whether I was fit for service," Pi said, adding she was given an examination only after she was told of her early retirement.

Military law states that the physical condition of any person with a disability arising from a disease contracted while off-duty must be examined before discharge.

"The army may not easily abandon old practices and prejudice about women, but I hope my case will kick-start a movement to change its culture," Pi said.

Her campaign has been partly successful but she will not benefit.

"The ministry made a decision properly according to its regulations. We are working to revise our regulations. Even if our regulations are revised, Pi will not be reinstated," a defense ministry spokesman said.

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