• Reuters


South Korean lawmakers are pushing for reforms to reduce the military’s judicial power after a female soldier who had suffered sexual abuse killed herself, rekindling criticism of the military’s handling of sex crimes.

An air force master sergeant, identified by her surname Lee, took her life last month after being molested by a colleague. Her family said she had reported the case and sought help, but the air force only tried to cover up the assault and bully and silence her.

Air force chief Lee Seong-yong resigned last week, taking responsibility for Lee’s death. The air force and defense ministry have declined to comment on the details of the case, citing an investigation, while her male colleague faces prosecution in a military court.

The military has been accused of being too soft on those responsible for wrongdoing and of often failing to protect victims, despite a string of incidents that has led to tighter rules and more severe punishment for sexual abuse.

Lee’s case triggered calls for an amendment of the Military Court Act, which activists say hampers the independence and fairness of criminal investigations because commanders oversee military prosecutors and courts.

The law also allows military chiefs to reduce sentences by up to a third, and that often results in lighter penalties for sexual abusers, the activists say.

A legislation and judiciary committee comprising members of the National Assembly discussed on Thursday early passage of a pending bill that would revise the law to dilute commanders’ power, including removing their authority to reduce sentences.

The proposal also calls for limiting military courts to first trials, and transferring appeals to civilian courts.

Similar bills have been introduced over the past several years but, facing of military opposition, none have passed the committee.

Defense Minister Suh Wook, addressing the committee, apologized regarding Lee’s case and agreed on the need for institutional improvement, but said the military’s unique characteristics should also be considered.

Choi Ki-sang, a former judge and an incumbent lawmaker, said the existing law had “various elements to protect offenders, not victims, for the sake of the military system’s uniqueness.”

Defense ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan said the ministry had a “willingness” to embrace reform.

Speaking to the committee, Suh echoed this view, saying: “In order to enhance the military judiciary system’s credibility, the influence of commanders over the procedure of criminal cases, reform should be taken to ensure the independence and fairness of investigations and trials.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.