The South Korean military said it will make an unprecedented decision about the future of transgender soldiers who serve in the armed forces following a noncommissioned officer’s decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
The case has sparked a wider discussion in the socially conservative country about the rights of gay and transgender South Koreans.
During a briefing Thursday, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said there are no regulations on the books that outline what to do when a transgender soldier undergoes transition surgery. A committee will decide in the coming days whether to discharge the soldier or allow her to keep serving in the military, the spokesman said.
Under current regulations, transgender Koreans are prohibited from entering the military, but there are no regulations regarding soldiers in active service, the spokesman clarified.
The soldier, who has not been named, underwent sex reassignment surgery in Thailand late last year while she was on personal leave. She is a professional officer who was not drafted, but rather signed up for the military.
She was identified by the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) as a tank officer. The group said in a statement that she had been receiving hormone therapy and psychological treatment before the surgery. It also said the soldier’s brigade was aware that she was transgender and supported her decision to undergo transition surgery.
“It is now time for the South Korean military to set up guidelines and regulations about transgender people,” said Kim Hyung-nam, the director of CMHRK. “We strongly urge the South Korean military not to discharge this officer so that she can continue to serve as a female officer.”
The Defense Ministry’s decision will likely have important ramifications for the future of LGBTQI soldiers, as South Korea has one of the most stringent conscription laws of any democracy in the world. The country is still technically at war with North Korea, as hostilities ended with a truce rather than a treaty.
All able-bodied South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to perform at least 21 months of active-duty military service, and can face prison if they attempt to avoid conscription. South Korea, which does not permit same-sex marriage, does not consider sexual orientation a valid reason to avoid conscription.
However, the military itself has come under significant criticism from Western human rights organizations for the way it treats gay soldiers. Members of the military are barred from engaging in gay sex acts and can be punished with up to two years in prison. Gay and transgender soldiers in the military have also complained of discrimination and abuse.
Transgender soldiers in democracies around the world face significant challenges. The United States lifted the ban on transgender people serving openly in 2016 under then-US President Barack Obama, but the Trump administration reenacted the ban. The ban, which does not affect troops who were already in the armed forces, went into effect in April 2019.