NATIONAL

[Newsmaker] Transgender sergeant seeks to continue serving in military

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Jan 16, 2020 - 16:22
  • Updated : Jan 16, 2020 - 19:12

A South Korean transgender sergeant faces a possible discharge from the South Korean Army after undergoing sex reassignment surgery while enlisted, despite his wish to continue the service as a female officer.

Lim Tae-hoon (Yonhap)

The trans person, a 20-something tank driver in a unit in Gyeonggi Province, underwent sex reassignment surgery in December in Thailand after gaining approval from his unit. The staff sergeant, while recovering at a national Army hospital, had applied for a legal gender change and expressed his wish to continue to serve in the Army. It marks the first such case for a solider on active duty.

The Army said Thursday that a committee will convene Jan. 22 to decide whether the solider should be discharged, though the sergeant seeks to delay the review process until he gets approval from a court for a legal gender change.

Under the Defense Ministry’s ordinance, active servicemen who suffer considerable mental or physical damage are subject to a review on their suitability for the given positions.  

Following a medical examination, the trans sergeant received grade 3 on a scale of 1 to 11 on mental and physical disabilities, for removing his genitals. He was referred to a committee tasked with reviewing whether to discharge him or allow him to continue serving in the Army.

The Center for Military Human Rights Korea urged the Army to accept the sergeant’s wish to continue serving as a female officer, adding there are no medical grounds to consider him “unfit” for service.

“We welcome the commencement of trans sergeants (serving in the military),” said Lim Tae-hoon, chief of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea. “The sergeant as well as his unit strongly hope that the sergeant can continue to serve with them so we are expecting a forward-looking result.”

If he were to be discharged, he would take legal action and seek to invalidate the decision, according to the organization.

Under South 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 on those who were enlisted in the military as men and subsequently underwent gender reassignment surgery after being conscripted in the country, where all able-bodied men are required to serve in the military for up to 24 months to deter aggression from North Korea.

There are no gay people openly serving in the military in South Korea. Though homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, discrimination against sexual minorities remains widespread across South Korean society.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)