The suicide of a female officer in the South Korean Air Force who had been sexually assaulted has sent shock waves through the country, finally prompting the government to initiate a reform of the military, The Dong-a Ilbodaily reported this week.
As French daily Le Monde reported, President Moon Jae-in took advantage of the June 6 Memorial Day holiday, which commemorates all the men and women who have died during military services, to remind people that "patriotism also implies protecting those who commit themselves to defend the nation." He also apologised for what he called "the backward culture in the barracks." Mr Moon promised reform, the outline of which is expected to be unveiled in August.
In the meantime, the investigation continues following the suicide of Ms. Lee (only her surname has been revealed), as reported by Korean outlet Edaily. The young woman was assaulted by a colleague after a dinner on March 3. The next day, her superiors did everything they could to prevent her from filing a complaint. She requested a transfer instead, but her re-assignment in early May only worsened the situation, ending in her suicide on May 22. Lee's lawyer says bullying and assaults increase when the suspects realize that the victim could not press charges.
In response to these revelations, a petition was launched on May 31 calling for a full accounting of the tragedy, gathering more than 350,000 signatures. The suspect of the assault was arrested on June 2 and the chief of staff of the air force, General Lee Seong-yong, resigned two days later. The Ministry of Defense also opened a special hotline to hear testimonies about sexual harassment cases fearing that "Ms Lee's case is just the tip of the iceberg."
Experts say the "backward culture" of the military is not limited to sexual assault against women. LGBTQ+ and minorities are also threatened and discriminated against, reports KBS. All these issues coincide with debates in the country about replacing the current male-only conscription system with compulsory services for men and women. South Korea faces a low birth rate, which could lead to the military losing half its strength over the next 20 years.