South Korea’s military will appeal a landmark court ruling that struck down its decision to discharge the country’s first known trans soldier, who died earlier this year.
Earlier this month, the Daejeon District Court said the army’s decision to forcefully discharge staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo – also reported in news outlets as Byun Hui-su – was “undoubtedly illegal and should be cancelled”.
The court said that the army made the incorrect assertion that Byun was male when making its decision, when it was “obvious that the decision should have been based on the premise that [she] was a woman”. It added she “should have been considered as female when the military checked whether she was fit to serve”.
Byun was a tank gunner in Gyeonggi province, north of Seoul but was discharged from the army in January 2020 after undergoing gender affirmation surgery. She later launched a landmark legal challenge against the South Korean army, which was dismissed in July that year. Byun filed an administrative suit just a few weeks later, alleging that her dismissal was unconstitutional.
Sadly, she was found dead in her home in Cheongju, south of Seoul, in March this year – just over a year after she was forcefully discharged from the army. Her family inherited her lawsuit after her death and has continued to fight for her reinstatement.
The South Korean military initially said it respected the Daejeon District Court’s verdict but has now said it will appeal against the ruling. A defence ministry official told reporters that the army believes there is a need for a higher court to review the case.
“The defence ministry will thoroughly examine whether transgender people can serve in the military through policy research in consideration of the unique nature of the military and public opinion,” the official said, Yonhap News Agency reported.
The official said the army requested the justice ministry – which is responsible for overseeing lawsuits pursued by the state – to approve the filing.
The justice ministry told the Associated Press that it would decide after reviewing critical legal issues and various aspects of the case.
Activist Cho Kyu-suk with the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a coalition of human rights groups, said the appeal was a delay tactic as the military feared possible backlash from conservatives over the army’s lack of policies on trans soldiers.
“The government may appeal, but our position is that they must not do so because that’s the attitude the government must have in the democratic society,” said Cho.
Trans people are prohibited from joining the South Korean military. However, there are no specific policies about trans people who undergo gender affirmation surgery during their time in service, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, South Korean human rights groups have demanded the defence ministry drop its plans to appeal the court ruling.
The ‘Joint Committee for Reinstatement and Honour Restoration of Sgt Byun Hee-soo (Sergeant of Engineering)’ held a press conference in front of the civil service office of the defence ministry in Yongsan-gu, Seoul on 19 October.
The groups demanded the army give up its appeal and apologise instead. According to KBS News, over 1,100 citizens and 230 organisations in South Korea were named in petitions and comments calling for the appeal to be waived.