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Court orders posthumous reinstatement of transgender soldier

Defense Mininstry reportedly mulling study on transgender military service

Activist in South Korea welcomes Thursday's ruling by the Daejeon District Court.(Yonhap)
Activist in South Korea welcomes Thursday's ruling by the Daejeon District Court.(Yonhap)
A South Korean court on Thursday ordered a cancellation of the forceful discharge of transgender soldier Byun Hee-soo, who took her own life earlier this year.

The Daejeon District Court ruled in favor of Staff Sgt. Byun, who was dismissed from the Army in January of last year, elucidating that the military’s decision was unfair.

Although the former tank gunner wanted to continue serving as a woman, her service was cut short two months after having gender reassignment surgery while on leave in 2019.

The Daejeon District Court pointed to the illegitimacy of the Army’s decision to kick her out. In deeming Byun unfit for service, the military concluded that her gender reassignment surgery and the resultant loss of male genitals rendered her mentally and physically unfit to be on active duty.

According to the South Korean military code, transgender candidates are ineligible for military service in peacetime.

The Daejeon District Court said the military should have considered Byun as a woman in determining her service suitability, given that Byun reported her status to the Army after applying for legal recognition of the gender change.

While Thursday’s court ruling sheds light on gender identity-based discrimination, the South Korean Defense Ministry reportedly will launch a project to review the policy on transgender military service in the foreseeable future.

Yonhap News Agency on Thursday reported that the ministry has considered a plan to commission a research project, which is expected to kick off this year.

Defense Minister Suh Wook in March openly acknowledged the need to conduct policy research on military service by transgender persons during a meeting of the parliamentary national defense committee.

Byun had struggled to return to active duty. In February 2020, she appealed the decision immediately after her dismissal, but the petition for reinstatement was rejected by the Army five months later.

In August that year, Byun filed an administrative suit against the Army’s decision with the Daejeon District Court. But she was found dead at her home in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, in March, ahead of the first hearing.

After her death, Byun’s family pressed ahead with the administrative lawsuit.

Yonhap also reported that the Army said it “respects” the court’s ruling, although it has not yet decided whether to lodge an appeal. The Army added it will comprehensively review the case and come up with measures. 

Meanwhile, a group working for Byun’s reinstatement and the restoration of her reputation on Thursday welcomed the court’s decision.

The advocacy group said it took “too long” to see logical and sensible outcomes, which came 624 days after her dismissal.

“Today’s ruling will remain in history and be remembered for a long time,” the group said in a written statement. “It will be remembered as a milestone in surmounting challenges of discrimination, a step toward a better world and hopes that touch minorities’ weary minds.”

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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