A law that criminalizes consensual sex between men in the South Korean military is leading to violence and harassment against gay and trans soldiers and should be abolished, an Amnesty International report released on Thursday said.
The report, "Serving in Silence: LGBTI People in South Korea's Military," details an atmosphere of mental and physical abuse that soldiers face under Article 92-6 of the country's Military Criminal Act.
The 1962 criminal article, which has been increasingly applied in recent years, makes sexual relations between men in the military punishable by up two years in prison.
"South Korea's military must stop treating LGBTI people as the enemy," said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International. "The criminalization of same-sex sexual activity is devastating for the lives of so many LGBTI soldiers and has repercussions in the broader society."
Amnesty International researchers interviewed 21 current and former soldiers who reported verbal intimidation, physical abuse and unwanted outing in a climate where discrimination is tolerated and even encouraged.
One former soldier, who used the pseudonym Kim Yeo-jun, described being interrogated by investigators who suspected that he was gay. They confiscated his phone and video-called a former lover in order to reveal his sexual orientation. Kim said he was then barraged with private questions, including detailed inquiries about sex positions.
Kim said that he felt he had to admit to violating Article 92-6 and that the experience has carried over into his civilian life.
"I still feel the investigation's impact even after leaving the military in 2018," he said. "The authorities came to me like Peeping Toms. They should have maintained confidentiality. I have lost faith and trust in people."
Another interviewee, who gave his name as "U," said that he witnessed a fellow soldier being sexually abused and forced to drink from a toilet bowl by a superior officer. When the abused soldier later turned to him for help in reporting the incident, the superior threatened and assaulted U.
"He told me: 'If you make a report, I will beat you until you will not be able to recover,'" U said. "I was then subjected to physical violence and humiliation for three hours," which included forced sex with the original victim.
Several soldiers described being sent to mental health facilities after being assaulted.
"The hospital tried to diagnose me as 'unfit for service',' with staff members even instructing me how to act mentally incompetent so that I could get discharged," said one soldier, who identified himself as Jeram. "I refused to be labeled in this way. I felt I had lived my life well prior to the military and knew that I was not the source of the problem. This whole experience led me to attempt suicide because I lost the will to live."
The number of soldiers charged under Article 92-6 has been on the rise in recent years. For most years between 2009 and 2018, the number was in single digits, but it jumped to 28 charged in 2017, according to data acquired by Amnesty International.
South Korea's Constitutional Court is currently considering again whether Article 92-6 is constitutional. It has upheld the article three times since 2002, most recently with a 5-4 ruling in 2016. South Korea does not criminalize same-sex behavior among civilians and the army bans anti-gay discrimination, but Article 92-6 is meant to prohibit what it calls "indecent acts."
The Amnesty International report says that Article 92-6 violates human rights including the rights to privacy, to freedom of expression and to equality and non-discrimination.
The report's authors also say that the impact of the article is felt widely throughout a society in which nearly half the population must serve in the military.
In South Korea, it is compulsory for all men to perform a minimum 21 months of military service, for which no civilian alternative is currently available. There are currently about 600,000 standing troops.
"These outrageous prosecutions represent only a fraction of the damage that criminalization inflicts on perceived and actual gay men," said Rife. "The military code does more than legislate against particular sexual acts. It institutionalizes discrimination and risks inciting or justifying violence against LGBTI people inside the military, and in wider society."
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