Editor’s Note: Kyle Knight is a researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch.
An alleged crackdown by the South Korean army on gay male service members, which came to light in April, is striking fear into gay soldiers and potential conscripts.
Earlier this year a video clip that appeared to show two military men having sex circulated on social media, sparking what seems to be a military witch hunt for gay conscripts. Two years of military service is compulsory for all able-bodied South Korean men. Most are drafted in their early 20s, and expulsion from service carries significant social stigma that can affect both their career prospects and family and community life.
The Military Human Rights Center for Korea, an advocacy group that has been documenting the sweep, published screen shots of dating app conversations that the group says resulted from military pressure on targeted men to have such discussions to identify other supposedly gay men. The human rights group and other South Korean advocacy groups that have been working on the case say that military investigators have confiscated mobile phones belonging to up to 50 soldiers suspected of being gay and insisted that they identify other gay men on their contact lists and gay dating apps.
Army officials say they are conducting a perfectly legal criminal investigation into soldiers accused of filming and uploading the video, invoking a discriminatory military code that prohibits consensual same-sex acts. One of the men targeted by the sweep remains in detention—under arrest on allegations of having consensual sex with another man.
South Korea’s government has consistently voted to support measures at the United Nations that call for an end to discrimination against LGBT people, but it has failed to uphold those principles at home. In 2014, Seoul’s mayor canceled the enactment of a city human rights charter after religious groups opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation in a non-discrimination clause. In recent years, activists have had to fight bureaucratic battles to hold an annual pride gathering. And the government has rolled out a new sex education curriculum with no mention of homosexuality because, education officials said, it needed to maintain “value neutrality regarding society, culture and religion.”
South Korea does not criminalize consensual same-sex behavior among civilians, and the army prohibits anti-gay discrimination and “outing” of gay soldiers. However, the 1962 Military Criminal Act’s Article 92-6 has been used to punish sexual acts between servicemen with up to two years in prison under a “disgraceful conduct” clause—regardless of consent and whether they have sex in or outside of military facilities.
Domestic and international human rights groups have challenged the discriminatory law. But as recently as 2016, South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld the provision in a 5-4 ruling. And the government has repeatedly defended the sodomy clause—including at the United Nations—contending that banning “indecent conduct” is necessary for maintaining discipline in the predominantly-male military.
Proponents of the law—in the past and during the current uproar—have said it is necessary to leave the sodomy provision in place to protect against sexual violence, but the Military Criminal Act already contains separate prohibitions on rape and sexual molestation.
The current crackdown demonstrates how Article 92-6 can lead to abusive, discriminatory targeting of soldiers. The government should order an investigation into allegations of abuses that have stemmed from the anti-gay sweep in the military, and begin the process of repealing the Military Criminal Act’s Article 92-6.