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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on June 8)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:10 June 08, 2021

Eliminate cover-ups
: Sexually harassed Air Force master sergeant kills self; military drags probe

The suicide of an Air Force female master sergeant who was sexually harassed reveals again the backward military culture where concealment and conciliation have taken deep root.

The victim reported the matter to her immediate superiors a day after the incident in early March, but they attempted to persuade her to reach a settlement with the perpetrator of the same rank. Eventually, the matter was reported to military police, but they procrastinated, putting off investigations.

The suspect was transferred to a different unit upon her request, but that came 15 days after the incident took place. The separation did not happen immediately.

She requested a transfer, too. But according to her family, the new unit treated her as a problematic soldier to watch. The military effectively harassed her collectively.

She was found dead in an apparent suicide on May 22, a day after she registered her marriage.

The Air Force characterized the case as a "simple accidental death" in reporting it to the Defense Ministry on May 25. It did not mention sexual harassment. This shows the military tried to cover up the case systematically.

Investigations only picked up speed after her family appealed for a thorough investigation and her death was reported in the media.

The Air Force prosecution first investigated the suspect on May 31, after the death of the victim and 55 days after the military police of her unit sent the case to the prosecution on April 7.

Had her report of the crime been processed quickly, the tragedy could have been prevented.

Sexual violence has recurred endlessly in the military due to its chronic malaise of trying to conceal any scandalous incident blindly whenever it arises.

In 2013, a female Army captain killed herself after being sexually harassed by her immediate superior.

In 2015, the Defense Ministry declared no tolerance of sexual abuse and enforced the "one strike, you're out" policy. It promised to suspend, demote or fire perpetrators.

Still, sexual offenses continued. In 2017, a female naval officer died by suicide after being sexually abused by a male superior.

According to a National Human Rights Commission survey in 2019, 48.9 percent of female soldiers replied that the military handled sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints fairly. The figure was down from 75.8 percent in 2012.

According to an annual 2020 report by the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a civic group, the number of aggravated sexual assault cases requesting counseling rose from three in 2019 to 16 in 2020. Those related to sexual harassment increased from 44 to 55 in the same period.

The ministry vowed to turn over a new leaf with the one-strike policy in 2015, but little has improved since.

One of the factors behind this problem is the military court's light sentencing. The court sentenced suspects to jail terms in 175 out of 1,708 sex crime cases it tried from 2015 to 2020. The ratio is 10.2 percent, much lower than 25.2 percent for civilian courts.

The military has shown a tendency of attempting to cover up incidents. In order to change the deep-rooted organizational culture, it is worth trying a new system where victims can take criminal justice procedures outside the military boundary.

If external institutions such as a civilian investigation panel and civilian ombudsmen are introduced, sex crimes in the military will more likely be detected and treated more objectively with little interference from the military. If a system to head off concealment and conciliation is not established, similar incidents will keep recurring.

Also, a male-dominated culture of victim blaming, in which female victims are often subject to taunts that they should have been more careful in their behavior, must be rooted out. One way to do that is to punish superiors or colleagues as accomplices of the perpetrators.

The military should take this opportunity to eliminate its anti-human rights culture and establish a system to process sex crime complaints quickly and fairly.

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