A new South Korean military officer runs into an echelon as they attend a joint commissioning ceremony for 6,478 new officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines at the military headquarters in Gyeryong...A new South Korean military officer runs into an echelon as they attend a joint commissioning ceremony for 6,478 new officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines at the military headquarters in Gyeryong March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: MILITARY SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A new South Korean military officer runs into an echelon at a commissioning ceremony © Reuters

South Korea’s army chief is facing calls to resign amid claims he ordered a nationwide probe to root out and prosecute gay personnel.

According to campaign group the Military Human Rights Center for Korea, General Jang Jun-kyu, army chief of staff, launched a “track-down process” that pinpointed about 50 soldiers, 20 of whom now face charges under military anti-homosexuality laws.

The vast majority of South Korean men must serve mandatory two-year stints in the country’s armed forces.

“Gen Jang is obviously incapable of leading the army,” MHRCK said in a statement.

“He treated his men who did their best to protect their homeland as if they were culprits and made them suffer the most horrible fear — losing personal dignity. He must take responsibility . . . and resign immediately.”

The South Korean defence ministry declined to comment.

The army denied Gen Jang had ordered a probe but acknowledged that “we are punishing soldiers on service who have homosexual relations with soldiers”, noting that homosexual activity was considered “sexual harassment crime” under the country’s military criminal act.

The remarks underline the conservative nature of much of South Korea which, despite rapid technological and economic development, has lagged behind on social issues.

The report by MHRCK alleges that investigators heaped psychological pressure on homosexual soldiers by threatening to out them to their peers, while interrogating them on their private lives in explicit detail. The team also carried out an undercover search of gay dating apps to uncover homosexual personnel, the report claims.

Same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea, although gay marriage is forbidden. The topic is generally taboo and it is rare to see same-sex couples in public. A survey from the US Pew Research Center found that 57 per cent of Koreans found homosexuality unacceptable, with only 18 per cent viewing it as acceptable.

“This [probe] is an obvious violation of human rights,” said Kim Jiyoon of the Asan Institute think-tank in Seoul. “But there is not going to be much public support [for these soldiers]. Korea is not ready for these issues. In the US, LGBT rights have escalated to become political issues. In Korea, it is not politicised yet.”

“The South Korean army imported its military law from western countries, but those countries have since abolished the laws because they are no longer acceptable. Korea still maintains these outdated laws,” said Han Ga-ram, a human rights lawyer in Seoul.

The military’s role in defending South Korea from the North makes it one of the country’s most powerful and important institutions. 

The South Korean army’s stance on homosexuality makes it an outlier among industrialised nations, with virtually all OECD militaries allowing LGBT citizens to serve. In the UK, gay citizens have been allowed to serve openly in the military since 2000, while the US lifted restrictions in 2011.

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

 

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