"You Didn't Even Have Oral Sex?": S Korean Military's Gay Witch-hunt in Depth

"You Didn't Even Have Oral Sex?": S Korean Military's Gay Witch-hunt in Depth

Seohoi Stephanie Park
Seohoi Stephanie Park

“You didn’t even have oral sex?”

“I didn’t even get to see his thing.”

In an audio recording, a senior military officer grills a young soldier with questions about his “gay friends.” The officer says: “We have all the information about you and your relationship with YYY on file, 400 pages long. There is no point in you lying to us; you will not get away with it.” In response, the soldier sounds flustered and hesitant.  

The Military Human Rights Center for Korea (MHRCK), which advocates soldiers’ rights, released the audio file on Apr. 17. The organization accuses the South Korean military of using phone records and a gay dating app to carry out a witch hunt of soldiers they suspect of being homosexual.

The MHRCK claims the South Korean army blacklisted forty to fifty soldiers for their sexual orientation, in an investigation which allegedly took place throughout February and March.

Here’s an overview of the blacklist allegations. Video collaboration by Korea Exposé and media start-up Dotface

“So all these people you have reached. These are all gay?” the man alleged to be the senior officer asks in the recording dated Mar. 5. In another phone call, he sounds more threatening: “I heard that you were thinking of getting a lawyer or something. You should know that’s nonsense; all you’ll end up doing is outing yourself as gay.”

According to the MHRCK, this anonymous soldier did appoint a lawyer and decided to tell the world about the plight of gay soldiers in South Korea. He is one of the 15 men that the MHRCK is supporting in the case, out of the 40 to 50 men that the organization suspects are on the blacklist.

On Apr. 13, the organization held a press conference, publicizing the gay blacklist for the first time and calling for the resignation of Army Chief of Staff Jang Jun-kyu, who is accused of orchestrating the scheme.

At a briefing the next day, the army denied all the allegations about systematically targeting gay soldiers. According to its written press release, “the army guarantees privacy for homosexual soldiers and makes the effort to prevent their human rights from being violated, by banning discrimination and restricting others from “outing” them.”

The MHRCK struck back, releasing evidence provided by soldiers, including screenshots of the gay dating application Jack’d. That is where the gay soldiers already in the army’s database were forced to track down even more gay soldiers, the organization claims.

“Evidence 1_3,” reportedly obtained from a gay sergeant and released by the MHRCK. In this exchange on Mar. 5, the sergeant (in gray) was allegedly coerced by investigators, sitting next to him as he texted, to ask another gay soldier (in blue), “When can I see you?” “Do you do one-night stands?”

“It would be a bit embarrassing with another soldier,” the oblivious soldier replies. The sergeant pressed on: “You don’t do it with soldiers?” “So you’ve never done it before?”

“Evidence 3,” provided by the same anonymous sergeant to the MHRCK. According to the organization, on Feb. 15 the soldier was forced to send an investigator named Hong Hak-gyo a picture of a gay soldier, screen-captured from the gay app Jack’d.

How Did It Start?

The “gay blacklist” investigations allegedly started earlier this year, when a sex video appeared online, showing two male soldiers having intercourse. The army subsequently arrested them for violating the Military Criminal Act, and allegedly embarked on building the blacklist. In the Apr. 13 press release, the army admitted to arresting the two soldiers. “We have confirmed the facts, identified who the soldiers are. We have arrested them on criminal charges based on the relevant law and are investigating them.”

The relevant law that the army refers to is Article 6 of Section 92, which defines anal sex and “related harassment” between soldiers as a crime.

This article, dubbed the “anti-homosexual law” by LGBT rights groups, has long been controversial because of its discriminatory nature. The United Nations Universal Periodic Review and the Korea Human Rights Commission also recommended its abolition in the past. Critics say the the law stigmatizes homosexuality within the military and enables punishment even when the sexual intercourse is consensual, and not in any way a harassment.

The article was brought to the Constitutional Court in 2002, 2011 and 2016 by many lawyers and the Army’s own Criminal Court, but the South Korean Constitutional Court affirmed the article’s constitutionality all three times. When some liberal lawmakers attempted to get rid of the article in 2014, the public was not necessarily in support. Some mocked the lawmakers’ attempt, suggesting that doing away with the law would lead to a breakdown of order within the military.

“Now that Article 6 Section 92 is gone, consensual intercourse between the same sex is now legal!” One satirical comic, shared on the extreme-rightwing website Ilbe, shows soldiers shouting, hugging and kissing each other while half-naked. Meanwhile, senior officers freak out at the scene. (Source: Ilbe)

Fighting for LGBT Rights

Same-sex relations are not illegal in South Korea, nor in its military (although homosexual intercourse is illegal in the latter). But the South Korean public is still largely homophobic.

According to a survey released in 2015 by Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank, only 23.7 percent of South Koreans in 2014 felt they had “no aversion to homosexuality.” Granted, this was an eight-percent increase from four years before. Among young people the perception is getting more positive. In 2010, roughly 30 percent of people in their twenties and 20 percent of those in their thirties said they had no aversion to homosexuality; four years later, these numbers doubled. Meanwhile, the older generation — people in their fifties and sixties — remained largely negative.

Christian communities still have a strong voice within South Korean society, preventing politicians from adopting a pro-LGBT stance. Out of the top five presidential contenders this year, only one, Sim Sang-jung, openly supports LGBT rights. Sim’s Justice Party was also the only party to acknowledge and condemn the army’s alleged blacklist. (By the way, the army chief of staff, accused of ordering the blacklist, is also the head of the Korea Military Christian Foundation.)

On Apr. 14, a day after the MHRCK released their findings about the blacklist, a small group of protesters gathered in downtown Seoul. They held candles inside paper cups in the colors of the rainbow. They were protesting the lack of LGBT rights in South Korea, in a running series of demonstrations that started several weeks ago.

lgbt Korea protest bosingak
50 to 60 people gathered downtown with candlelights. The event was organized by 28 NGOs, including the Rainbow Action against Sexual-Minority Discrimination. (Seohoi Stephanie Park/Korea Exposé)

I cannot believe what has happened in the Korean Army. It is not really different from what happened in those countries where homosexuals are detained, tortured and even executed,” said Harry Yaechan Lee, a civil rights activist with the Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation. “We, the LGBTQ community, demand full equality for us right now.”

Harry Yaechan Lee, a civil rights activist, at the protest held on Apr. 14 in downtown Seoul. (Seohoi Stephanie Park/Korea Exposé)

“I’m afraid of getting fired from my job if I give you my name,” a former soldier who claims to be on the blacklist told Korea Exposé. This anonymous ex-soldier said that not everyone on the blacklist is a soldier at present; some had finished their military duty last year, but still ended up on the investigators’ radar. The Military Criminal Act does not apply to soldiers once they are discharged.

According to Official Order 1932 from the Ministry of Defense, the military cannot actively seek out homosexual soldiers. Commanders are forbidden to ask personal questions regarding gay soldiers’ sexual experiences and details about their partners.

But the MHRCK says the army is guilty of doing exactly that. Investigators reportedly questioned soldiers about their sexual partners and specific sexual acts, and tried to expand the blacklist by confiscating soldiers’ cell phones and forcing gay soldiers to collaborate.

The majority of the soldiers — some discharged — had nothing to do with the original sex video that instigated the investigations within the army, which the MHRCK says extend to even the navy and the air force. The army is apparently planning to indict twenty to thirty people on criminal charges for violating Article 6 (which says anal sex is a crime). Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the Korean Army confirmed whether this is true.

“They were drafted regardless of their sexual orientation…. And now the military is outing and treating them as criminals,” one Twitter user said.

Serving in the military is no easy feat. South Korea, which remains technically at war with North Korea, maintains a huge military. According to the U.S State Department, in 2014 armed forces constituted 1.3 percent of the entire population (roughly 50 million). By comparison, it was 0.14 percent for China and 0.42 percent for the U.S. that same year.

South Korea’s two years of mandatory military service are characterized by harsh training and meager salary. If any man, “able-bodied” and over 18, refuses to serve, a common penalty is a prison term. Even after the imprisonment, he is fined, and ostracized in society.

Currently, NGOs are holding protests in front of the Ministry of Defense in Seoul, condemning the blacklist. If the MHRCK’s allegations of the gay blacklist are true, it’s clearly unjust that sexual orientation can merit punishment at a place soldiers didn’t have a choice in going to. The MHRCK vowed to bring the case before South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission. 

According to the civic group, a soldier told investigator Hong Hak-gyo, “I’m suffering, because my entire life in the military, which I worked so hard for, seems to have collapsed in one instant.” Hong allegedly replied, “Don’t say that. You should say you’re sorry for causing great damage to the military.”


Cover Image: Republic of Korea Army Capital Mechanized Infantry Division (Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces via Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0)

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