The Korea Herald


Controversy surrounds late transgender soldier’s placement in national cemetery

By No Kyung-min

Published : June 25, 2024 - 15:38

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A person places a flower at the funeral ceremony for late staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo at the Daejeon National Cemetery on Monday. (Newsis) A person places a flower at the funeral ceremony for late staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo at the Daejeon National Cemetery on Monday. (Newsis)

A transgender soldier, who died by suicide in 2021 following a forcible discharge from the Army, has been laid to rest at a national cemetery in Daejeon this week, but dissenting voices questioning the appropriateness of her burial there persist.

The burial of Byun Hee-soo at the cemetery on Monday followed the Defense Ministry’s decision in April to recognize her death as occurring in the line of duty. The ministry said her depression was linked to her forced discharge following her gender-affirming surgery during her service in 2019.

Following the recognition, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs acknowledged her eligibility for interment at the national cemetery, allowing her family to relocate Byun from her original charnel house in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, to the Daejeon National Cemetery.

Under the current law, among the 14 criteria for eligible burial at the Seoul National Cemetery, the Daejeon National Cemetery or the Yeoncheon National Cemetery, "a military person who died while in active service" and "a person who died after being discharged, retired, or exempted from service due to an injury," are included.

While this recognition overturned the Army’s previous classification of her death as occurring outside of official duties, it has stirred controversy among some civic and religious organizations who believe her death does not meet the criteria for such national treatment. They argue Byun’s death should be considered a personal matter rather than falling under military law, and called for a reevaluation of the decision.

Some held a protest at the Daejeon cemetery Monday.

“A transgender soldier's suicide cannot be equated with the sacrifice of patriots who died for their country,” the protesters claimed.

In January 2020, the Army discharged Byun from her post at an armored unit in Gyeonggi Province, citing her mental and physical condition as unfit for active duty, following her gender-affirming surgery the previous year. Byun was found dead in an apparent suicide in March 2021.

Seven months after her death, the Daejeon District Court ruled in favor of the deceased soldier in a lawsuit challenging the Army’s dismissal of her. The court stated that the military should have recognized the late staff sergeant as a woman when assessing her fitness for military duty.