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[Newsmaker] New veteran affairs chief breaks glass ceiling

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Published : 2017-05-18 16:30
Updated : 2017-05-18 18:32

The Patriots and Veteran Affairs Ministry was created in 1961 as a state body dedicated to war veterans and retired solders. But in reality, it looked more like an old guards’ network in which retired generals were handpicked from their own exclusive inner circles and devoted most of their tenure to promoting chauvinistic ideas.

The decadeslong tradition may come to an end, with a new chief -- who is drastically different from predecessors -- taking office Thursday.

Pi Woo-jin, who was sworn in as the new minister, is a woman, progressive by political identity and who retired from the Army as a field officer, not a general. And she has a record of suing the military authority and winning against it.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Pee Woo-jin speaks to reporters after a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Her focus on veteran affairs, she said during her inauguration ceremony, will be the veterans, only.

“My focus on veteran affairs will be centered on veteran families,” Pi, a former Army lieutenant colonel, said during her inauguration speech at the government complex in Sejong city.

She also vowed to work for national unity, apparently mindful of the past controversies involving the ministry under her predecessors.

Under the tenure of Ret. Gen. Park Sung-choon, who served between 2011 and 2017, the ministry was blamed for fueling an ideological divide, with Park banning a song commemorating the victims of the May 18 democratic uprising and igniting outrage from the victims’ families and liberal activists.

Commissioned as an Army officer in 1978, Pi served in various roles until she left the army in 2009. She was a first-generation female Army helicopter pilot, a position that has rarely been assigned to female officers.

During her 30-year career, she has spoken out against deep-rooted barriers against female soldiers and pervasive sexual harassment by male superiors.

One of the most well-known cases is her legal battle with the Defense Ministry over its decision to discharge Pi in 2005 after she developed breast cancer and underwent treatment. After a three-year legal fight, she was able to return to the Army.

“It was wrong to force me to discharge because I don’t have any trouble performing my duties,” she said in a media interview after the trial. Cancer developed in only one of her breasts, but she later removed the other because “it was bothersome when working at a military job.”

Her case sparked criticism over the military’s forced discharge against those with a serious illness. In 2007, the Defense Ministry changed its rules, allowing the injured or diseased soldiers to continue their service in the military.

She has also advocated female soldiers’ rights in the military, where superior jobs are often dominated by male soldiers who belittle female subordinates, treating them as if they should entertain male superiors.

In an interview with a local magazine in 2006, Pi said she was removed from her post after protesting against her commander, who had ordered her to bring a young female non-commissioned officer to a drinking party.

Notorious for inviting female non-commissioned officers to his drinking parties, the commander, Pi said, had asked her to send the officer in “fancy clothes.” Upon hearing the order, she instructed the officer to wear a battle dress uniform.

“What I expected of the Army is to create an environment where every female solider can follow the military career the same way as male soldiers can. I will fight to the end until I see that no single female soldier is discriminated against in the military,” Pi said in the interview.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)