[Editorial] Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo's case shows us that justice delayed is justice denied

Posted on : 2021-10-08 18:18 KST Modified on : 2021-10-08 18:18 KST
A court ruled Thursday that the army’s forcible discharge of the nation’s first known transgender soldier was unjust — a decision that unfortunately comes too late
Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo smiles during an interview with the Hankyoreh that took place in March 2020 at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea in Seoul’s Mapo District. (Kang Jae-hoon/The Hankyoreh)
Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo smiles during an interview with the Hankyoreh that took place in March 2020 at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea in Seoul’s Mapo District. (Kang Jae-hoon/The Hankyoreh)

On Thursday, a South Korean court ruled in favor of late Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo, who was forcibly discharged from the army following a gender confirmation surgery. Byun had sued the army chief of staff, asking the court to reverse the army’s decision to discharge her.

The court found that the army should not have discharged Byun on the grounds that she had a disability by the standards of a male body, considering that Byun was a woman when the army made its decision about Byun’s physical and mental fitness.

The court’s ruling is eminently sensible, but it took far too long for this obvious ruling to be made. Before she could see her discharge overturned, Byun died by suicide. This offers yet another reminder that justice delayed is justice denied, and that there’s no “next time” when it comes to guaranteeing human rights.

Byun returned to the army after receiving her gender confirmation surgery while on leave in November 2019. She wanted to continue her military service as a woman, but the army discharged her on the grounds of having a “physical and mental disability” in January 2020.

Byun asked the army to postpone its review of her discharge until the court ruled on her pending request to alter her legal gender. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) granted Byun’s request for emergency relief and added its recommendation that the review be postponed, but the army ignored that, too.

For more than a year after leaving the army, Byun kept fighting to return to the military, which she’d regarded as a vocation. She held several press conferences at which she spoke of the unfairness of her forcible discharge, and she also filed a personnel complaint with the army. When her complaint was dismissed, she filed an administrative lawsuit in August 2020.

The army studiously ignored these opportunities to correct its mistake.

In July 2020, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted its opinion to the Korean government that “the dismissal of Ms. Byun would violate the right to work and the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity under international human rights law.” Then in December, the NHRCK recommended that the army reverse the discharge and set up a system to prevent such events going forward.

But the army refused to budge. For Byun, this situation must have felt like an insurmountable barrier. In that sense, her death should be regarded as a “social murder” resulting from discrimination, exclusion, and hatred of LGBT people.

The court ruled in Byun’s favor 624 days after she was forced to leave the army. But by that time, the person who’d been looking forward to that news the most was no longer with us. If the military had only accepted the NHRCK’s recommendation at the end of 2020, Byun could have gone back to her life in the military.

We hope the military leadership will feel sincere remorse, belated as it would be, for taking the life of a soldier who’d been so fiercely devoted to the military. The first step in that direction would be not attempting to appeal the court’s decision. The military also needs to dedicate itself to systemic reform to rid the army of discrimination.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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