Wed, Apr 17, 2019 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Gay S Korean soldiers trapped in legal limbo

AFP, SEOUL

Members of the Dongmyeong unit pose at a send-off ceremony at a military base in Incheon, South Korea, on Monday.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Productive and driven, he was a model army officer, but he had a secret: He was in a gay sexual relationship with a fellow soldier — a crime under South Korea’s military law.

He kept his sexuality hidden from everyone, including friends and family, only meeting his lover off-base and after work.

Same-sex acts are legal for South Korean civilians, although homosexual people live largely under the radar as it remains a conservative society.

However, the South Korean military classes openly gay men in its ranks as having “special needs” and campaigners say it actively pursues soldiers who have consensual same-sex intercourse with each other.

“I worked very hard as an officer, but none of that mattered when I became a suspect,” said the 27-year-old, who asked for anonymity.

“There were days when I just wanted to die,” he said, adding that he was caught after authorities discovered his messages on his partner’s phone.

He faced a criminal conviction and a possible forced outing to his parents, whom he had hoped would never find out the truth about his homosexuality, describing them as “conservative, devout Christians.”

South Korea has a conscript army to defend itself against nuclear-armed North Korea, with all able-bodied male citizens obliged to serve for nearly two years.

Doing so is seen as a patriotic duty and failure to complete service can bring enduring stigma that affects social standing, employment prospects and more.

South Korea is also the world’s only advanced economy to make consensual gay sex between soldiers a crime under military rules.

Under clause 92.6 of its Criminal Code, known as the military sodomy law, soldiers can be jailed for two years with labor if convicted at a court martial.

For homosexual men this can mean having to live a double life.

The officer was among 22 soldiers arrested during a 2017 inquiry into homosexual activity in the army.

He was luckier than most in his position: He was charged during his last month of service, so his case was transferred to a civilian court and he was later acquitted.

It was the first time a soldier charged under the military sodomy law had been found not guilty.

While the officer has begun a civilian life with a new job and thus far avoided his family finding out any details of his sexual orientation — prosecutors have since appealed, leaving him in a legal and social limbo as he awaits the next hearing.

“It is as if my entire existence was being denied,” he said.

“I should never have been charged ... in the first place,” he said.

South Korea’s armed forces used intrusive “witch-hunt like” tactics in the search for alleged wrongdoing, according to the Military Human Rights Center for Korea (MHRK), an advocacy group in Seoul.

As part of the 2017 probe, investigators forced suspects to message dating app users in front of them to hunt down other gay soldiers, it said.

Three navy officers are under investigation for violating clause 92.6, the center said, after one revealed he was gay to a military counselor, who then reported him.

“The fact that a military therapist disclosed the soldier’s sexual orientation without consent says a lot about human rights in South Korea’s military,” MHRK head Lim Tae-hoon said.

The navy said the inquiry was being carried out according to the military criminal code and on the orders of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense.

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