A gay soldier kisses his boyfriend in a public place in a scene from the movie "Just Friends" The Constitution Court is studying whether prohibiting homosexuality in the military is unconstitutional. / Korea Times file
By Bae Ji-sook
Should gay soldiers have the same rights as their heterosexual peers?
The Constitutional Court is expected to soon decide whether Article 92 of the Military Law stipulating the punishment of homosexual soldiers is a violation of their constitutional rights. A relevant public hearing is scheduled at the nation's highest court this week.
Reactions are mixed over the issue since the military is one of the most conservative and exclusive organizations here, and any changes may influence overall Korean society where many homosexuals suffer from extreme prejudice and discrimination.
While gay activists and civic groups are calling for the abolishment of the law, insisting that sexuality is irrelevant in terms of performance, conservatives are concerned that allowing same-sex relationships would trigger conflict, bringing down overall military discipline.
To the surprise of many people, the petition was filed by a military court in 2008, which claimed that regulating an individual's sexual preference is a violation of the rights to decide one's sexual behavior and of one's privacy.
The case was ignited when a 27 year-old sergeant was indicted for "habitually sexually assaulting" his subordinate. According to military law, those who have a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex are subject to a year imprisonment. Homosexual intercourse is described as the "mating of chickens."
The court ruled him innocent, saying that homosexuality isn't subject to any regulation because it is strictly personal.
Supporters of the abolishment say the law conflicts with the Constitutional rights of a human. "In European Union states, except for Greece, homosexuals performing military service is accepted. In Australia and many other countries, they are allowed to openly serve in the military," lawyer Jung Jung-hoon said.
There are currently 53 countries prohibiting gay soldiers, including China, Yemen and Iran.
The Barrack Obama administration, which has widely publicized its pledges for homosexual, has recently decided to abolish the so-called "Don't ask, don't tell," rule from next year. The policy is not to publicly discriminate against homosexuals and at the same time, bind gay service members not to publicize their sexuality.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his personal support, citing the "contradiction between allowing homosexuals to serve and requiring them to keep quiet about their sexuality."
However, Korean military officials have been rather ignorant about the issue.
Jeong Yol, one of the handful who came out of the closet, said he was tormented by the military which has defined homosexuality as a mental disease. "I was sent to a hospital where people beat me, mocked me and ordered me to harass a man," he recalled.
"Even after I was sent back to the camp, I was branded as one to be 'watched out for' where people monitored my every move. Not many were willing to be a true friend. My life there was miserable and lonely," he said.
Still, there are people who worry that the possible "loosen up" atmosphere on sexuality could lead to chaos in the barracks.
Han Gi-heung, a journalist for Donga Ilbo newspaper, previously said, "The government is becoming 'populist' stressing human rights. But we must think about whether it will really benefit the military. The affairs and all other matters involving homosexual relations could easily tear down the structure."
There have been several unsuccessful attempts to overcome such obstacles here.
In 2006, gay riot police officer YuJung Min-seok refused to return to his post after a month of holiday, claiming that the masculine and oppressive military culture was offensive to him. In 2008, another riot policeman Lee Gye-deok requested the Ministry of National Defense to remove him from the riot police squad because the "heterosexual-dominant culture has constantly suppressed gay staff members."
병영에서 동성애 수용 가능할까?
남성 동성애자 병사들도 이성애자들과 똑같은 권리를 가져야 할까요?
헌법재판소는 동성애자 병사들에게 벌을 주게 되어 있는 병역법 92조가 헌법적 권리를 침해했는지 여부를 곧 결정하게 될 것 같다. 관련 심문이 금주 헌재에서 갖게 될 예정이다.
한국에서는 군이 가장 보수적이고 배타적인 조직 중 하나라서 이 문제에 관한 반응은 엇갈리고 있다. 변화가 있다면 많은 동성애자들이 극도의 편견과 차별을 당하고 있는 한국 사회 전반에 많은 영향을 끼칠 것이다.
남자 동성애자들과 시민 단체들은 성욕은 실행과는 무관하다며 이 법을 폐기할 것을 촉구하고 있는 반면 보수주의자들은 동성 성관계를 허용하면 갈등을 조장하여 전반적으로 군기가 약화될 거라며 우려하고 있다.
많은 사람들이 놀랍게도 이 청원은 2008년 군법회의가 제기했다. 군법은 개인의 성적인 선호의 결정권과 사생활을 침해하는 것이라고 주장했다.