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Military offers condolences after death of transgender soldier who challenged dismissal

Byun Hee-soo, South Korea’s first transgender soldier, speaks during a press conference held to protest the Army’s decision to discharge her, Jan. 22, 2020. (Yonhap)
Byun Hee-soo, South Korea’s first transgender soldier, speaks during a press conference held to protest the Army’s decision to discharge her, Jan. 22, 2020. (Yonhap)
The Ministry of National Defense offered condolences Thursday over the death of the country’s first transgender soldier, who was challenging the Army’s decision to discharge her over sex reassignment surgery.

Byun Hee-soo, 23, was found dead at her home in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, the previous day. A local mental health clinic Byun frequented notified paramedics who found her with no will left behind. Byun, who tried to take her life before, had been unreachable since Sunday, the clinic said.

The former staff sergeant was awaiting a trial next month to reverse the military diagnosis that branded her with a “mental and physical disorder” after undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

“We express our sympathy,” Col. Moon Hong-sik, the ministry’s deputy spokesperson, said at a press briefing.

Moon said that the military has not been in discussion on rule change for transgender candidates. Rights groups have demanded the ministry revise decades-old regulations that they say discriminate against transgender people.

Currently, transgender candidates are deemed unfit to serve in the South Korean military. According to the military code, they cannot take part in military service unless war breaks out; and even then, only some transgender individuals would be called to duty.

Byun, who was dismissed from the Army in January 2020, two months after having the surgery in Thailand on her official leave, said she wanted to continue to carry on in the same role. The former tank gunner was denied the chance.

Byun had disputed the military’s dismissal because she underwent “medical treatment” and the Army was discriminating against her sexuality if it refused to see it that way. Her attorney said the military was free to deem the result of any medical treatment as a disorder if it went down that road.

The attorney told The Korea Herald in February that her client was a fully able-bodied soldier who had already proven to be a capable tank gunner, and who would prove that the military diagnosis concluding otherwise was unwarranted.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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