SOUTH KOREA - Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin and other ministry officials gathered together last Friday in an education session on a theme they must have felt somewhat embarrassed with ― preventing sex crime. What prompted the gathering was the suicide earlier this month of a female Army officer, who had allegedly been harassed for months by her male superior demanding a sexual relationship.
At the end of the session, the defence minister said policy efforts needed to be strengthened to prevent sex crimes in the military, calling for a culture of gender equality to be established at the ministry headquarters and all barracks.
What was missing from his remarks was an apology for the 28-year-old officer being driven to kill herself and a pledge to take stern punitive measures against her abusive superior.
According to her will, part of which her bereaved family sent to a lawmaker by text message, the officer had abused her for nearly a year in retaliation for her refusal to accept his persistent demand for sex. It is tragic that the officer, whose duty was to give counseling to soldiers in her unit, was unable to find a way to get herself out of a problem that resulted in her suicide.
She might have found it difficult to speak up about her predicament under the male-dominated military culture that forces subordinates to be submissive to their superiors. This circumstance leads us to a presumption that more female officers have been suffering from sexual harassment or assault in the barracks.
Military authorities should take more thorough and proactive measures to preempt abusive acts against women in the military and help victims under this coercive culture. But figures from the Defence Ministry show the number of military sex crimes increased from 329 in 2009 to 453 last year, indicating efforts to curb them have remained insufficient and ineffective. A report published by a state rights watchdog last year found that about 43 per cent of female officers experienced gender discrimination and nearly 12 per cent faced sexual harassment over the past year.
Eliminating sexual abuse in the barracks is also needed for the smooth implementation of the plan to increase the proportion of female military personnel from the current 1 per cent to more than 5 per cent by 2020.
Military sex crimes must be dealt with sternly as a matter doing grave harm to combat readiness and thus national security posture. To prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, the Army officer accused of having driven his female subordinate into committing suicide should be subject to strict punishment after a thorough inquiry. His seniors in the chain of command should also be disciplined for their negligent supervision.