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(LEAD) Defense minister apologizes over death of alleged sexual abuse victim in Navy

All News 13:45 August 13, 2021

(ATTN: ADDS photo, more info throughout)
By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Aug. 13 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Suh Wook apologized Friday over the apparent suicide of a female Navy noncommissioned officer amid allegations that a senior colleague sexually harassed her months earlier.

The chief petty officer, whose identity was withheld, was found dead at her residence in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, on Thursday, after reporting days earlier that she had suffered sexual harassment in May.

"I am sorry to the bereaved family and to the people that what should not have happened has happened," Suh was quoted as saying by a ministry official. "Considering the gravity of the case, we will form a special investigation team ... and conduct a thorough investigation so as not to leave an inch of suspicion."

According to officials, the alleged harassment took place on May 27, while the victim and the suspect were having lunch together near their base on an island off the western city of Incheon.

"The victim promptly reported the case to an immediate superior but did not want an official complaint to be filed at that time, and the superior gave a verbal warning to the suspect," a Navy officer said.

This file photo, taken June 4, 2021, shows the Gyeryongdae military headquarters, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

This file photo, taken June 4, 2021, shows the Gyeryongdae military headquarters, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

On Saturday, however, she requested a meeting with the chief of her unit and told him what happened. The case was officially reported to higher-ups at her request Monday, and Defense Minister Suh was briefed on the case Wednesday, officials said.

"The investigators are looking into what caused the victim to change her mind between late May and early August," an official said.

It was not immediately clear if the suspect, a senior chief petty officer, has admitted to the allegations raised against him.

Military investigators sought an arrest warrant for the suspect, and a hearing was scheduled for Friday.

The incident took place as the military has been striving to stamp out sex crimes in barracks following the death of an Air Force noncommissioned officer, surnamed Lee, in May, three months after she was sexually abused by a colleague.

It also comes just nine days after President Moon Jae-in held a rare meeting with top commanders and urged the military to regain the trust of the public lost following a series of embarrassing incidents.

In July, an Army general was arrested and indicted for the alleged sexual molestation of a female subordinate while the military was still reeling from the death by suicide of Lee.

Despite top commanders' apologies and pledges for reform, the Navy incident again raises doubts over whether the military is capable of such an overhaul.

According to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, Moon expressed "fury" after receiving a report on the latest case and ordered a thorough investigation.

The bereaved family called for strong punishment for the suspect.

"We want the perpetrator to be dealt with sternly and strongly," the family said in a statement, according to the Navy. "We ask for measures to prevent similar incidents from recurring so that our child can be the last victim."

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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