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Air Force suicide exposes culture of glossing over sex crimes

A funeral altar at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, has been set up to commemorate an Air Force master sergeant who reported a sexual assault in March before taking her own life in May. (Yonhap)
A funeral altar at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, has been set up to commemorate an Air Force master sergeant who reported a sexual assault in March before taking her own life in May. (Yonhap)
The suicide of an Air Force master sergeant who said she was a victim of sexual violence will be one of many similar stories to come, as long as the military leaves unchecked a culture prone to glossing over sexual abuse, experts said Tuesday.

The sergeant, who reported to the military on March 2 that she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow master sergeant who was senior to her, was found dead May 22. Her family, who petitioned the presidential office to look into the matter, said the military sat on the case until it made headlines.

“Victims can take their complaint up the chain of command. We have a system in place just for that. But that didn’t work because someone on the line or everyone except the victim had not done their part,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

The military is accused of not abiding by the rules it set up to tackle sexual violence.

The military allegedly tried to silence the victim and her husband, also in the military, and appointed an underqualified public defender for her. The lawyer, who had been in the role for about a year as an officer, did not meet her even once. He said coronavirus precautions had prevented a meeting.

“The military still has a pattern of playing down sex crimes, which makes every prevention system useless,” Shin said.

According to a local report citing the latest military survey, 51 percent of service members out of roughly 1,500 personnel stationed at major commands said service members should “look out for themselves” to prevent sex crimes.

Forty-one percent of the respondents said sex crimes in the military had nothing to with others, but with the perpetrator alone.

A recently retired female officer said the culture that played down sexual abuse had changed significantly in recent years, but that she was uncertain whether it had been completely eradicated within the military. She said seeking redress was still easier said than done for victims of sexual violence.

“Victims were still in some ways pressured to let it slide unless that’s something really huge like rape,” she said, adding that commanders -- who can be held responsible for misconduct by their subordinates -- avoid making a big deal out of events that could derail a promotion.

Last week, President Moon Jae-in ordered the military to expand the investigation and look into the chain of command to find out what went wrong, prompting lawmakers to roll out reforms that aim to reduce commanders’ power to influence military court decisions.

Lawmakers have suggested removing their power to commute sentences and their authority over military prosecutors who work at the base the commanders oversee. Military prosecutors should report to the defense minister or military chiefs – Army, Navy or Air Force – so they could run a more independent probe, lawmakers say.

Legislators also propose having military courts hold only first trials and hand over appeals to civilian courts. The Supreme Court will still deliver the final rulings. But some say the proposals will do little to address the type of cover-up that is believed to have led to the suicide.

“Trials are hardly why we’re dealing with this tragedy. An initial investigation went sideways because the military had not responded to the complaint like it should have in the first place,” said Yang Uk, an adjunct professor of national defense strategy at Hannam University.

That would be the case for next time as long as the military keeps trivializing sex abuse allegations, he added.

Also on Tuesday, the Ministry of National Defense said it will run a thorough investigation but declined to confirm whether the defense minister himself would be sought for questioning. He was briefed two weeks ago on the victim’s death.

But last week, the Air Force chief who briefed him said he had decided to step down amid reports that the Air Force did not report to the ministry as to what could have led to the suicide, in violation of a rule that anything that could help explain the death should be cited in the report.

By Choi Si-young (