South Korean army ignores family’s urgent plea to recognise trans soldier’s death as ‘on-duty’

Byun Hee-soo sits wearing a traditional South Korean military uniform while at a press conference.

The South Korean army has refused to recognise the death of a trans soldier as “on-duty” after protests.

A committee made the decision during a Thursday (1 December) meeting, where they classified trans soldier Byun Hee-soo’s case as a “general death”.

Byun, who is believed to be the first openly transgender soldier in South Korea, was found dead at her home in March 2021 after being discharged from the military a year prior.

After her death, family members and LGBTQ+ activists called for the military to categorise her death as “on-duty”.

But the nine-member panel opted to reject the category after finding that Byun’s death had no “significant causal connection” with her military service.

Activists have argued that the Gyeonggi province tank gunner had been significantly affected by her discharge in January 2020 after undergoing gender affirmation surgery and that it ultimately led to her death.

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The “general death” category allows her family to receive financial support, which includes a funeral allowance and compensation.

Activist and prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun said that the country “could have saved” Byun before she died.

“We could have saved her… We just had to let her live life true to who she was,” she said.

South Korea’s Trans Liberation Front CEO Kim Wo-myeon said that, during her funeral, she felt that “something was wrong with the world”.

Additionally, members of a presidential committee on military deaths urged the South Korean defence minister to classify Byun’s case as “on-duty” death in April, according to Yonhap News.

Byun Hee-soo attempted to challenge the discharge during a legal case, but passed away before a ruling could be made.

The Korea Herald revealed that, prior to her death, she had been urging for a continuation of the legal battle so that she could return to military service.

Her family vowed to press ahead with the lawsuits, saying they would apply for a succession of the original case to “fulfil her dream [of serving the country as a transgender soldier] by winning the legal battle at all costs”.

The court eventually ruled in her favour on October 2021, saying that the army’s decision was “undoubtedly illegal and should be cancelled”.

The ruling added that it was “obvious that the decision should have been based on the premise that [Byun] was a woman”, as well as “various factors, such as special circumstances of the military, basic rights of trans people, and public opinions”.

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