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Lee calls for tougher penalties, closer oversight on sex crimes in military

Democratic Party of Korea presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung (center) speaks in a meeting with female reserve service members Thursday held in Dongjak-gu, southern Seoul. (Joint Press Corps)
Democratic Party of Korea presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung (center) speaks in a meeting with female reserve service members Thursday held in Dongjak-gu, southern Seoul. (Joint Press Corps)
The presidential nominee for South Korea’s ruling party called for increased intervention and monitoring of the military as it continues to report sexual assault cases and raises the need for extensive reforms internally.

Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said in a meeting with female reserve service members Thursday that the country's military should be able to allow the civilian sector to actively engage in monitoring the human rights issues within the "close-minded" military.

"Many have raised opinions that an ombudsman policy should be adopted for the civilian sector to oversee the human rights situation within the military without limitations, and I wholeheartedly agree on this," Lee said.

"This is a problem that happens because of the reclusiveness of the military, which can be tackled by being more open."

Reserve service members at the meeting asked Lee to bring reforms to military judicial proceedings that often see sexual assault cases hidden or loosely responded to. Such actions that have continued for years forced many female service members to resort to fatal actions, they said.

The military has brought in a number of specialized committees and internal agencies to primarily deal with sexual assault cases, they said, but many of these attempts have remained in vain due to the nature of the service branch trying to hide their misdeeds from being unveiled to the public.

"Policies are in force, but they stop working from time to time to let perpetrators to walk freely without being detained, and victims are often ostracized to even end their own lives," a reserve service member said during the meeting.

The names of the participating reserve members were not released to press.

The South Korean military is facing increasing calls for reforms after a series of sexual violence cases were unveiled, the latest of which saw an Air Force master sergeant die by suicide in May after being sexually assaulted by a fellow master sergeant who was senior to her.

The Air Force allegedly tried to silence the victim and her husband, who was also serving in the military. The branch was also reported to have appointed her an underqualified public defender.

An advisory panel that launched following the sexual assault case recommended the military expand external oversight by including a civilian member on the disciplinary board as well as appointing a civilian rights commissioner.

Lee said during the meeting the sexual assault victims should be assured to believe that investigation and protective measures are fully launched on their cases, adding that penalization should be severe enough for perpetrators to "think their lives can be changed completely."

The country's military has been accused of being traditionally soft on abusers and has shunned accepting changes involving an increased role of the civilian sector as an arbiter. Lee said separating female service members from their male counterparts is not the solution to end sexual violence.

Yoon Seok-youl, Lee's principal rival for the presidential race representing the main opposition People Power Party, has also called for reforms within the military centered on revamping its internal judicial system to include law enforcement agencies from the civilian sector.

His team said in August the military should be legally required to transfer sexual violence and other harassment cases to the prosecution and courts of the civilian sector, adding a system must be made for reports on such topics to be directly reported to the minister of defense.

A revision to the Military Court Act passed in August to have all sex crimes in the military tried in civilian courts from the start, as well as violent crimes involving homicide or crimes that service members committed prior to joining the military. The revision will take effect in July.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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