The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Transgender sergeant forcibly discharged from military

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Jan. 22, 2020 - 16:01

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A Korean transgender sergeant was forcibly discharged Wednesday from the military after undergoing sex reassignment surgery while enlisted, despite her wish to continue service as a female officer. 

Byun Hee-soo (Yonhap) Byun Hee-soo (Yonhap)

What the solider has done “falls into reasons deemed unfit” for military service in accordance with related laws, the Army said Wednesday in a statement after a committee convened to decide on the sergeant’s discharge, among other items on its agenda, earlier in the day.

Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo had asked for the chance to serve for the country on the front lines, regardless of her sexual identity. 

“I want to show everyone that I can be one of the great soldiers protecting this country,” a teary Byun said at a press conference held in the afternoon following the Army’s decision.

Byun, a 20-something tank driver in a unit in Gyeonggi Province, underwent sex reassignment surgery in December in Thailand after gaining approval from the unit. Wishing to continue to serve in the military as a female officer, she applied for a legal gender change and asked the Army to delay the review process until she had obtained court approval.

Under the Defense Ministry’s ordinance, active servicemen who suffer considerable mental or physical damage are subject to a review of their suitability for given positions. Following a medical examination, the transgender sergeant received a grade 3 on a scale of 1 to 11 on mental and physical disabilities, due to the removal of the genitals.

“The process of achieving my dream wasn’t only enjoyable and happy,” Byun said. “Pushing down a sense of confusion about my sexual identity deep inside my mind, I endured the difficult process of living in a male dorm during high school years and the process of qualifying as a staff sergeant only to sacrifice myself for the country.

“I know that the Korean military is not yet ready to accept trans soldiers, but human rights in the military I love are progressing,” she said. “I hope that sexual minorities can perform their duty and mission in an environment without discrimination.”

Byun also thanked senior officers and fellow soldiers who supported her coming out and her decision to change her gender. They appealed to the Army on her behalf that they wanted her to continue serving in the military. 

The Center for Military Human Rights Korea filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea on Monday, accusing the Army of human rights violations. The NHRCK recommended the Army delay the committee meeting.

The Army said it “sufficiently understands” grounds for the human rights watchdog’s recommendation, but the decision had been made based on the result of a medical checkup in accordance with related laws, regardless of the status of her application for a legal sex change.

Under Korea’s regulations on military recruitment, transgender people are considered mentally disabled, labeled with “gender identity disorder” and declared unfit for military service. But there are no rules concerning those who enlist in the military as men and subsequently undergo gender reassignment surgery after being conscripted. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (