For many South Koreans, the mandatory two-year military service required of all men is an onerous obligation born of the country’s precarious reality of abutting North Korea and its million-man army. Many try to postpone their service, apply for plum assignments or seek to avoid it altogether.
Not Byun Hui-su. Byun sought out a specialized, far-from-home high school for future military officers, and in March 2017 joined the ranks of South Korea’s army as an officer.
On Wednesday, the army decided Byun could no longer serve in South Korea’s military because of “mental and physical disability.” Byun, a 21-year-old staff sergeant, recently underwent sex reassignment surgery to become female.
The army’s swift decision to boot the transgender soldier from its ranks came despite protests from advocates and a national human rights commission recommendation that the case be given more time for consideration.
It has ignited fierce debate in a country that remains largely socially conservative, in part because of a vocal and zealous evangelical Christian population, and where military service is a perennial point of contention in gender issues because women are not conscripted. Women who voluntarily enlist account for more than 10,000 members of the military.
Byun’s unprecedented case in South Korea thrusts the country into the forefront of an issue that has been controversial in the U.S. and other nations. President Trump, via a 2017 tweet, abruptly reversed an Obama administration decision to begin allowing transgender individuals to enlist and serve openly, a move that’s being challenged in the courts.
The U.S. has 8,980 active service members who are transgender, according to Department of Defense statistics cited by the Palm Center. It’s not known how many of South Korea’s 600,000 troops — about 464,000 of whom are with the army — may be transgender.
Byun and her attorneys said they would file appeals to the human rights commission and pursue legal action to allow her to continue to serve.
“I’m going to fight to the end, until the day I return to the army,” a tearful Byun said during a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday afternoon. She said her unit and superiors were aware and supportive of her decision to proceed with the surgery, and had knowingly signed off on her travel to Thailand for the procedure.
South Korean authorities said that while the military has no specific regulations banning transgender service members or concerning their transition, it considers the removal of genitals a disability necessitating the discharge decision. A female lieutenant colonel was dismissed from the army in 2006 under the same regulation for getting a double mastectomy when she had cancer in one breast; she successfully challenged her discharge.
In the case of gay individuals, Korea’s military does not preclude them from serving but has been accused of rooting out gay service members under a law banning sodomy, in some cases for consensual sex that took place off-duty and off-base. Four soldiers identifying as gay are challenging their discipline and prosecution under the law before South Korea’s supreme court, alleging discrimination.
Amnesty International has said the sodomy law “institutionalizes discrimination, reinforces systematic disadvantages for gay, bisexual and transgender people and risks inciting or justifying violence against them inside the military and in the broader society.” Several transgender women have also been prosecuted for evading military service, accused of using their gender identity as an excuse.
A transgender woman who served in the military from 2007 to 2009 told Amnesty that she suffered abuse and harassment from peers and superiors for not fitting in — but nonetheless served out her time.
“I am more than qualified and effectively completed my duty,” Edhi Park said, according to a 2019 report.
Byun said part of her interest in the military came from wanting to suppress the femininity she sensed in herself, but also a strong wish to serve her country. She said she initially planned on completing her time in the military as a man, putting off transitioning, but suffered from deepening depression because of gender dysphoria.
She said that after receiving counseling and mental health treatment through the military, she began receiving hormonal therapy the spring of last year. In August, she came out to superiors in her unit, realizing she needed to be honest with herself and those around her to be a good soldier, she said.
It was after deciding to be forthcoming about her gender identity that she began excelling at her role as a tank operator, receiving high marks and earning awards, she said.
Byun said that with the blessing of her superiors, she traveled to Thailand in December for sex reassignment surgery.
On Tuesday, on the eve of the army’s review of Byun’s case, a coalition of anti-LGBTQ groups held a rally outside the Defense Ministry, urging Byun’s immediate dismissal. About a dozen protesters said a transgender soldier would hurt the military’s discipline.
The army’s review board met for about an hour to hear from Byun and her attorney before reaching the decision to order her discharge, according to the Center for Military Human Rights, which has been advocating on her behalf.
Byun said that South Korea’s military was changing in many other ways — allowing soldiers to have smartphones and phasing out certain types of punishments — and that she believed its treatment of LGBTQ individuals could also evolve. She said she wanted the opportunity to serve her country on the front lines, at the border with North Korea.
“I’m hoping all sexual minorities in the changing military, including myself, can carry out our duty and vocation without discrimination,” she said. “I would like to be a great precedent. I’m a mere individual, but I’d like to be a part of this change.”