Photo: Byeon Hee-su at a press conference. Credit: Website of Military Human Rights of Korea.
On March 3, Byeon Hee-su 변희수, South Korea’s first publicly known transgender soldier who fought for her right to serve in the military, was found dead at her home in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk-do Province 충청북도 청주 in an apparent suicide. Her death came only months after the National Human Rights Commission 국가인권위원회 issued the historical recommendation for her reinstatement, the first recognition from South Korean government for a transgender person’s right in the military. She was 23 years old. (See previous coverage, “Transgender Right”.)
Byeon became an officer of the Republic of Korea’s 5th Armored Brigade 제5기갑여단 in 2017 as a tank driver. She received a gender reassignment surgery in Thailand in November 2019. Despite being an excellent soldier who received support from her commanders to continue her service, the military deemed her to be disabled and ordered her to be discharged in January 2020. Byeon filed an administrative lawsuit against the military, and also petitioned the NHRC to challenge her dismissal. On December 14, 2020, the NHRC made the historical recommendation to the military to reinstate Byeon, in the first governmental recognition of a transgender person’s right to serve in the military. The first hearing for the administrative challenge, before the Daejeon District Court 대전지방법원, was scheduled for April.
Byeon’s death led to an outpouring of mourning in South Korea’s social media, with the hashtags #RIP and #TransRightsAreHumanRights trending for several days. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, issued a statement: “I honor her courageous struggle against dismissal from the military, following surgery to affirm her gender identity.” The Ministry of Defense 국방부, through its Deputy Spokesman Mun Hong-sik 문홍식 부대변인, issued a statement that said: “We express condolences to the regrettable passing of former Staff Sergeant Byeon Hee-su,” after coming under fire when an unnamed Army official was quoted in Yonhap News 연합뉴스 saying “the military need not comment on the death of a civilian” - glossing over the fact that the military forced her into civilian status.