Seoul, South Korea — 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 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 another contender in saying that he opposed homosexuality. Critics said the statement was a stark tactic to win support among conservative voters.
In South Korea, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are a largely taboo and politically unpopular subject. In recent years, 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.
“Our military remains stuck in a barbarian and medieval culture,” said Lim Tae-hoon, director of the Military Human Rights Center. “The investigators preyed upon gay soldiers’ vulnerability like a cat playing with a mouse.”
Mr. 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.
But 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 in or outside the military compounds. Those found to have violated the act face up to two years in prison.
The army declined to provide details of its investigation. It insisted 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-strong military.
But 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 a series of telephone conversations secretly recorded in March and April, an army investigator warned a gay sergeant against seeking help from lawyers or the National Human Rights Commission. 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 website of the Military Human Rights Center for Korea, based in Seoul.
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.
Mr. Lim, the director of the Military Human Rights Center, said the inquiry also detracted from looming security concerns.
“It’s time for our military to focus on how to deal with the North Korean threat, but by going after gay soldiers, it is actually shooting at its own troops,” Mr. Lim said. “They don’t seem to realize how grave our security situation is.”
The crackdown began early this year when the army was tipped to a video clip on social media that showed a soldier and an officer, both men, having sex. The soldier was arrested on charges of violating the military criminal code, as well as a law against spreading obscene content online.
But the case did not end there.
Using information they learned from the case, investigators expanded the inquiry. Army regulations ban discriminating against gay soldiers and forbid identifying or outing gay men or asking about their sexual experiences.
But the investigators routinely asked gay soldiers questions about their sexual history and orientation, said Mr. Lim’s group, which is providing legal advice for 14 of the service members implicated in the case. They 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. They also forced some to log onto dating apps to dupe other gay soldiers into revealing their identities, the group said.
“I’m just curious, but does it make you feel good when you have sex with a man?” one investigator was quoted as saying to a gay soldier. “I want you to take this opportunity to readjust your sexual orientation.”
The army declined to respond to individual accusations by Mr. Lim’s group.
But the army denied that its chief of staff, Gen. Jang Jun-kyu, ordered the crackdown. “The investigation is proceeding legally while protecting human rights and privacy,” it said.
Although South Korea has made strides in democratizing and improving basic rights in recent decades, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been largely left out, rights groups said.
South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage. All major candidates for the presidential election in May have vowed to oppose it.
After the Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that adultery was no longer a crime, many churches seized on homosexuality as a vice to denounce, organizing rallies to counter gay-pride marches.
The Ministry of Education does not allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues to be part of sex education for students.
“Our society has been busy erasing sexual minorities,” said Jeong Min-seok, the director of the DDingDong LGBTQ Youth Crisis Support Center.
And the military has been the least receptive.
In 1998, Mr. Jeong, then an army private, was sent to a military psychiatric ward after he was outed. He said he was forced to take tranquilizers and was separated from other inmates at night. Once he returned to his unit a month and a half later, it tried to ban him from conducting a nighttime guard-post duty with another soldier.
In 2011, when a male and female officers were found having sex on duty, they were suspended for three months but not criminally charged. By contrast, all 18 gay service members identified by Mr. Lim’s group in the current investigation faced criminal charges, even though they had sex on leave or off duty.
The Constitutional Court has repeatedly upheld the anti-sodomy code, giving more weight to the argument that it is necessary to fight sexual abuse and protect the discipline of an almost all-male military.
“The problem is that the army is abusing the law to launch a systematic ferreting out of gay soldiers,” said Han Ga-ram, a human rights lawyer. “This is not that different from the Nazis’ roundup of homosexuals and the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya.”
For months before the Constitutional Court gave its last ruling on the military criminal code, in July, conservatives rallied outside the courthouse, saying that abolishing the code would undermine the military’s ability to fight North Korea. Some warned against empowering “pro-North Korean gays.”
One of their banners said: “Who’s going to take responsibility if my son goes to the military and learns homosexuality?”
“What the investigators have found is just the tip of an iceberg, so widespread is homosexual activity in our military,” said Kim Young-kil, a retired army colonel who leads the Just Military Human Rights Institute and supports a crackdown on gay sex in the military.
by Choe Sang-Hun
Source – The New York Times