‘The Only Exit’: Where Soldiers Are Dying After Sexual Assaults


SEOUL — ​ The troopers had been driving again to the South Korean air drive base after dinner and drinks on March 2. In the again seat, Master Sgt. Lee Ye-ram may very well be heard repeatedly begging her male colleague​, Master Sgt. Chang Dong-hoon, to cease sexually assaulting her.

“Can you please stop ​it,” she stated, in line with the dialog recorded by the car’s dashboard camera. What got here after was the most recent instance of South Korea’s persistent struggle to rid its military of sex crimes​, even because the nation tries to recruit extra ladies amid a shortage of male conscripts.

When Ms. Lee reported that Mr. Chang kissed and groped her within the automotive that night time, her superiors tried to bury the grievance, in line with Defense Ministry investigators. The ​navy didn’t carry formal expenses towards Mr. Chang till after Ms. Lee, 23, took her personal life on May 21. Mr. Chang has since admitted to the assault and is going through trial.

It has change into what some say is a sample​ in South Korea​: One feminine​​ ​soldier after one other has taken ​her personal life ​lately after they reported being sexually assaulted within the navy. Hundreds of sexual assaults are reported every year. At least 4 feminine victims have taken their very own lives prior to now eight years, together with a ​navy ​chief petty officer who was discovered lifeless in her ​house in August.

So far, 15 folks have been indicted in reference to Ms. Lee’s case, none of them high-ranking air drive law enforcement officials or prosecutors accused of delaying the preliminary investigation. Her household has refused to bury her till the officers are punished, however Defense Ministry investigators have stated there’s not sufficient proof. They wrapped up their work final week.

South Korean society has lengthy understood the necessity to handle widespread gender bias, however women in the armed forces are seen as particularly vulnerable. The nation’s 550,000-member navy is taken into account one in every of its most hierarchical, male-dominant and paternalistic establishments, and former troopers say ladies are handled as playthings somewhat than colleagues.

The difficulty attracted nationwide consideration in 2013 when a military captain died by suicide after being abused by her boss. “I don’t want to die” had been a few of her final phrases, stated Kang Suk-min, the household’s former lawyer. After the captain’s loss of life, her father said he hoped that South Korea would “never again have to see another female soldier die like my daughter.”

Eight years later, Ms. Lee’s father is making the identical enraged attraction.

“It’s the male-dominant military culture that doesn’t treat female soldiers as colleagues that killed my daughter,” he stated in an interview. “It’s the military culture that ostracizes the victim of sexual crime, not the predator, that killed my daughter.”

The day after her assault, two of Ms. Lee’s instant bosses — an air drive senior grasp sergeant and a warrant officer — discouraged her from taking her case to the navy police, and one of many males instructed she act “as if nothing had happened,” in line with the investigation. Ms. Lee finally requested to be transferred to a different unit, the place she stated she was handled as a troublemaker.

“I am not sure I can hold on,” she told her father in a desperate voice message on May 7.

The navy has since arrested each bosses on expenses of attempting to coerce Ms. Lee into silence. The air drive senior grasp sergeant died by suicide in July whereas in navy custody. The warrant officer has denied all expenses towards him. Gen. Lee Seong-yong, the air drive’s chief of workers, has stepped down.

More than 400 instances of sexual assault between troopers have been reported yearly from 2017 to 2020 in South Korea, in line with information submitted to Kwon In-sook, a feminine lawmaker. Less than 40 % of the accused have confronted expenses, and almost 43 % of these charged walked free after receiving suspended jail sentences.

Sexual assault victims and sexual minorities are sometimes those who concern punishment. Gay troopers have been indicted on a charge of sodomy, a criminal offense beneath the navy’s legal code. A transgender lady who was expelled after gender-reassignment surgical procedure died by suicide in March. (Last week, an area court docket dominated that her dismissal was unlawful.) Yet because the navy cracks down on sexual minorities, critics say, the sexual assaults proceed.

“Most of the sexual violence in the military goes unreported,” stated Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights, a civic group in Seoul that has assisted victims of sexual violence. “You protest and ruin your chance for promotion or you leave the military.”

Fewer than one third of the ladies who responded to a 2019 survey conducted by the Defense Ministry stated they reported being sexually assaulted, primarily as a result of they felt “nothing would happen.” The Defense Ministry has stated that it was working to vary navy tradition and undertake new insurance policies to assist combat sexual assaults, however former troopers say male superiors are extra involved about injury management than accountability.

Much of the sexual harassment takes place off base throughout group dinners and ingesting events, in line with investigators and former troopers. In 2014, a military division commander stepped down after it was revealed that he had coerced feminine troopers into becoming a member of ingesting events at his residence.

“They want their female subordinates to be there to act as ‘flowers,’ serving drinks,” stated Bang Hye-rin, who was a Marine captain till 2017 and is now a counselor for victims of sexual assault on the Center for Military Human Rights. “Even if you feel disgusted to do so, you swallow your pride and do it because they have the power to affect your promotion.”

Women within the navy are handled as “second-class, nonessential members of the armed forces” by their male colleagues and superiors, Ms. Bang stated. “They don’t consider sexual harassment a serious crime, treating it like some social gaffe that can happen when men and women drink together.”

In a petition to Parliament final 12 months, an air drive captain wrote bitterly a couple of colonel who pressured her to attend a celebration in 2019. She was sexually assaulted by one in every of his buddies. “We have been promised a South Korea where women are respected and guaranteed equal opportunities and do not end their own lives out of disappointment and frustration,” she wrote. “Being summoned to a drinking party and serving as a sexual plaything is not part of serving the country as an air force captain, is it?”

Ms. Lee’s father remembered his daughter as a vivacious and caring lady. She wished to enlist within the air drive early on, becoming a member of a handful of women who had been accepted right into a highschool program run by the air drive to coach younger cadets. She started her service in 2017 and thrived till the sexual assault left her depending on sleeping tablets, in line with her father.

“My daughter chose to die rather than succumb to their coercion,” he stated, her pictures in a mourning altar arrange in a navy hospital close to Seoul. “She defended her principle through death.”

The preliminary inside report on Ms. Lee’s suicide recognized her as a sexual assault sufferer and quoted her dad and mom as saying that she was beneath duress from superiors demanding that she not press expenses towards Mr. Chang. But these findings had been expunged from the report earlier than it was delivered to the Defense Ministry two days after her loss of life. Two air drive colonels have been indicted on expenses of falsifying the report back to preserve Ms. Lee’s suicide quiet.

It was not till May 31 — the day an area broadcaster broke the information about Ms. Lee’s loss of life — that navy prosecutors questioned Mr. Chang for the primary time. In its investigation, the Defense Ministry discovered that Ms. Lee had ​additionally ​been sexually abused by two different superiors throughout her time within the air drive.

Mr. Chang apologized to Ms. Lee’s household ​throughout a trial that started in August. Prosecutors have requested the court docket to condemn him to 15 years in jail. At a latest listening to, Ms. Lee’s father lunged towards Mr. Chang in a rage. He hurled curses and a water bottle earlier than the soldier was whisked away by the navy police.

If you’re having ideas of suicide, name the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can discover a checklist of extra assets at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.



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