A Soldier’s Harrowing Insight Into Sexual Violence In South Korea’s Military

“The perpetrators prey on that. They know that female officers cannot report anyway.”

Content Warning

This article includes descriptions of sexual assault and suicide or self harm that may disturb some readers.

In South Korea, all men are required to enlist by age 28 (Korean age), with few exceptions. Women, on the other hand, can choose to join the military voluntarily.

Bang Hye Lin

One of these women, Bang Hye Lin, is speaking up about the sexual violence female soldiers endure at the hands of their comrades. Like many women, Bang joined the military for career purposes.

My school promoters said the tuition is free, the school sends you overseas to study, and you get a job after you graduate; so I just decided to join the Naval Academy.

— Bang Hye Lin

Bang witnessed what would be the first of many sexual crimes during her third year at the Naval Academy. A male cadet installed spycams to illegally film her female peers. At the time of 2010, there were not as many laws against digital sex crimes as there are today.

In my junior [third] year, there was an illegal spycam case. A senior male cadet installed cameras. There was one camera each in my female senior’s room, classmate’s room, and a junior’s room. It was quite a big case with five or six victims.

— Bang Hye Lin

Rather than helping the victims, the school discouraged them from pursuing legal action to protect the Naval Academy’s reputation. Because the crime was considered a military issue and not a criminal issue that would be tried by the civil court, the perpetrator went unpunished. Bang Hye Lin would later see this scenario repeat itself many times during her military career.

At first, some of the female cadets demanded criminal punishment as this shouldn’t have happened in the school. The school convinced the cadets not to talk about this outside of the school. They told us, ‘This should not be a criminal case. Let’s wrap things up with the cadet who is leaving the school.’

Ultimately, the perpetrator left the school as if nothing had happened.

— Bang Hye Lin

To “survive” in the military environment, Bang turned a blind eye to her peers’ sexual harassment at first, even joking about it. She recalls the harassment happening to lower-ranking female soldiers. Eventually, it climbed the ranks, and she herself experienced it. When Bang tried to report the sexual harassment to a female officer, the officer brushed her off.

There was a lot of sexual harassment and an assault. It first happened to a female officer who was working with me. At that time, I had to survive in the organization, so I laughed along and joked about it. I shouldn’t have done that. It first happened to lower-ranking officers before it happened to me. This shows that there is a greater tolerance.

When it finally happened to me, I reported it and said, ‘Our unit’s sexual harassment is too much.’ There was a female senior at the time, and she told me, ‘You laughed along and joked about it before. Why are you bringing this up now?’

— Bang Hye Lin

In 2021, airforce Master Sergeant Lee Ye Ram died by suicide after being sexually assaulted by a fellow master sergeant and later bullied by fellow soldiers.

MBC News

The perpetrator asked her, ‘What does your car look like? Let’s go talk some more in your car’ after assaulting her the first time. My daughter didn’t say anything after that, but I have reason to believe that she was sexually assaulted a second time in the car…

— Master Sergeant Lee Ye Ram’s father

Following Lee’s death, lawmaker Kwon In Sook discovered that the Military Criminal Act did not provide any protection for victims who had suffered sexual violence at the hands of perpetrators who used rank against them.

Kwon In Sook

[I] found out that the Miliary Criminal Act did not have any clauses with regards to involuntary sexual violence using rank as a reason in the military, and we added the new cause in.

— Kwon In Sook

Kwon pushed for all sex crimes that take place in the military to be tried in the civil court rather than the military court. Historically, perpetrators of sexual violence in the military who are tried by the military court are much more likely to be released on probation than those tried by the civil court. In 2020 alone, over 400 sexual abuse cases were reported. Many others were not.

Of these cases, less than 40% of perpetrators were prosecuted and 42.9% were released on probation.

Unlike many men, who leave the military after their mandatory service is complete, women often join in the hopes of having a long, fruitful military career. According to Bang, perpetrators are aware of this and they use the knowledge against their victims.

In order to secure stability in life, I need to endure the military trainings until I am selected for life-long service. The perpetrators prey on that. They know that female officers cannot report anyway.

— Bang Hye Lin

Bang also pointed out what is perhaps the most unnerving aspect of how sexual violence is handled in the military. The perpetrators will eventually leave and go back into society unchecked and unpunished. She believes the perpetrators’ crimes need to have real-world, post-military consequences.

Culturally, our country sees any issue related to sexual abuse in the military as something that should stay in the military or that the military needs to change and everything will be solved. But I think that’s an easy approach. Because none of the soldiers are born to live and die in the military their entire life. They come and go as part of the civilian world, and they are affected by civilian society.

— Bang Hye Lin

Watch the full video here:

What's Happening In Korea