06:13, May 04 364 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-04 06:13:03
South Korea must end gay soldier 'witch-hunt', campaigners say

Human rights campaigners have called on South Korea’s military to end its “witch-hunt” against gay servicemen, after an investigation into dozens of men prompted debate among presidential candidates over the country’s poor record on LGBT rights.

The investigation began after a video appearing to show a soldier and an officer, both men, having sex was circulated on social media earlier this year.

Military investigators are alleged to have confiscated mobile phones from as many as 50 soldiers suspected of being gay, and pressured them to identify gay colleagues on their contact lists and dating apps, according to Military Human Rights Centre for Korea.

Kyle Knight, a researcher in the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, accused South Korea’s government of hypocrisy, saying it “has consistently voted to support measures at the United Nations that call for an end to discrimination against LGBT people, but has failed to uphold those principles at home”.

Last week, the man widely expected to become South Korea’s next president, Moon Jae-in, angered the country’s LGBT community when he said he opposed homosexuality.

“I oppose it,” Moon said during a televised debate. “I don’t like it.”

Moon, a liberal former human rights lawyer, was responding to a question from Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate from the conservative Liberty Korea party, who claimed homosexuality in the military would undermine South Korea’s ability to fight North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong army.

Moon later moderated his stance, saying: “I oppose discrimination against homosexuals, but am against the legalisation of [gay marriage].”

Campaigners say the army is using the 1962 Military Criminal Act – which bans consensual gay sex, even while on leave – to root out gay servicemen.

South Korea does not criminalise gay sex among civilians but soldiers found guilty of violating the military law’s “sodomy clause” face up to two years in prison.

The army said it was conducting a legal investigation into the soldiers who made and appeared in the video. Local media reported that 32 men were being investigated and could be charged with “sodomy or other disgraceful conduct”.

An army statement said: “The probe is taking place, protecting the human rights and private information of the individuals and following legal procedures. A soldier having sex with another male soldier is a violation of the law, and the military is criminalising this as an indecent assault, considering the importance of discipline within the military.”

LGBT activists in South Korea said they had been left speechless by Moon’s failure to defend them. “It felt like my very existence was being denied,” said Hahn Chae-yoon, executive director of Beyond the Rainbow Foundation. “For someone who is running for president to say he ‘opposes’ homosexuality was shocking.”

Hahn said the current investigation was not designed to uncover sexual crimes, but to root out gay solders. South Korea’s requirement that all able-bodied men aged 18-35 serve up to two years in the country’s 650,000-member military meant practically every young gay man was a potential target, she added.

“This is a huge problem,” Hahn said. “The point of the law is to tackle sexual violence and punish offenders. That’s what we want, too – but the law is being applied in a way that punishes homosexuality.”

She accused Moon of attempting to attract the conservative votes he needs to boost his support before next Tuesday’s election, which was called after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

“The number of South Koreans who support gay rights is gradually rising, but conservative Christians are a powerful political force,” she said. “That’s why the candidates are pandering to them”.

Shim Sang-jung, of the progressive Justice party, is the only one among the five main presidential candidates to have voiced unequivocal support for anti-discrimination laws. “Homosexuality or sexual orientation is a person’s identity,” she said at the debate. “I am a heterosexual, but others who have different sexual orientations have the right to be respected – this is democracy.”

The unexpected emergence of South Korea’s treatment of sexual minorities as an election issue has exposed homophobia among both liberal and conservative candidates, the Korea Times said in an editorial.

“Moon was a human rights lawyer and hearing him say that he was against a minority because of their sexual orientation was nothing short of shocking,” the newspaper said. “Sexuality should be left to the discretion of an individual, and members of the LGBT community should have their rights protected just like any other minority.”