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South Korean military discharges its first transgender soldier

South Korean army Sergeant Byun Hui-su weeps during a press conference at the Center for Military Human Right Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
South Korean army Sergeant Byun Hui-su weeps during a press conference at the Center for Military Human Right Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korea‘s first known transgender soldier pleaded to be allowed to continue serving after the military decided Wednesday to discharge her for undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

It was the first time in South Korea that an active-duty member has been referred to a military panel to determine whether to end his or her service due to a sex reassignment operation. South Korea prohibits transgender people from joining the military but has no specific laws on what to do with those who have sex reassignment operations during their time in service.

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The army said in a statement that it concluded the soldier’s operation can be considered a reason for discharge.

It said the decision went through due process and was based on a related military law on personnel changes. Army officials cited a provision of the law allowing the military to discharge personnel with physical or mental disabilities if those problems weren’t a result of combat or in the line of duty.

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After the ruling, the staff sergeant, who identified herself as a tank driver named Byun Hui-su, held a news conference at which she asked military leaders to reconsider their decision and let her serve as a female soldier.

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She said becoming a soldier was her childhood dream and that she now wants to serve at the tense border with rival North Korea.

“Regardless of my sexual identity, I’d like to show everyone that I can become one of the great soldiers who protect this country,” Byun said, holding back tears. “Please give me that chance.”

Byun said she had sex reassignment surgery in Thailand in November after suffering depression over her sexual identity for an extended period. She said in early 2019 she had the top score in an official assessment of tank driving skills among her battalion staff sergeants.

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Speaking at the same news conference, rights activist Lim Tae-hoon said he will fight alongside Byun and others to transform what he called “our savage military.”

Lim, the leader of the Seoul-based Center for Military Human Rights, took issue with the army’s legal justification for discharging Byun. “I can’t resist feeling wretched at the military’s vulgar mindset as they determined that the lack of a male genital is a physical disability,” he said.

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South Korea’s state-run human rights watchdog recommended Tuesday that the army postpone its decision. The National Human Rights Commission said in a statement that referring the soldier to the military panel would be an act of discrimination over sexual identity and affect the soldier’s basic human rights.

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Public views on gender issues in South Korea have gradually changed in recent years. Several gay-themed movies and TV dramas have become hits and some transgender entertainers have risen to stardom. However, a strong bias against sexual minorities still runs deep in South Korean society.

Activists say transgender people are likely to face harassment, abuse and insults, and many suffer from depression.