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South Korea's first transgender soldier dies, spurring calls for change

Byun Hui-su was discharged last year for undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Image: South Korean army Sergeant Byun Hui-su speaks during a press conference at the Center for Military Human Right Korea in Seoul, South Korea
South Korean army Sergeant Byun Hui-su speaks during a press conference in Seoul last year.Ahn Young-joon / AP file

SEOUL — The death of South Korea's first known transgender soldier, who was discharged last year for undergoing gender reassignment surgery, has sparked calls from advocacy groups and activists for better protections and acknowledgement of transgender residents.

Byun Hui-su, 23, who was a staff sergeant before being discharged, was found dead by emergency officials at her home in the city of Cheongju, south of Seoul, on Wednesday.

"Byun's death resonated even more with the public because the military and this society refused to acknowledge the change," Rainbow Action Against Sexual-Minority Discrimination of Korea, an umbrella association of group of 40 sexual minority groups, said in a statement.

Byun's bravery in coming forward had inspired and empowered others, the group said.

A woman who said she had been Byun's friend since they attended a military high school together seven years ago, told Reuters that Feb. 28 would have been Byun's last day in the military if she had been allowed to stay in service.

"She was destined to be a soldier. A military nerd, she was so knowledgeable about all things military, not just Korean troops but those in other countries, and worked so hard to restart her service," said Kim, requesting only her surname be given due to privacy issues.

Kim said Byun had been jobless as all her applications were rejected since she went public when the military discharged her last year after having the operation in Thailand.

Byun sued the Army, saying she still hoped to continue her service, and the first hearing had been set for April.

“I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country,” Byun said at the time, breaking down in tears as she described her decision to undergo surgery and the subsequent clash with the military.

An initial military comment that it was not in a position to say anything regarding “the news of the death of a civilian” drew swift criticism on social media, and on Thursday a spokesperson offered official condolences, calling Byun's death "unfortunate."

The official said, however, that the military had still not had any detailed discussion on its policies toward transgender soldiers.

The case triggered debate in South Korea's LBGTQ community over how transgender members of the military are treated in a country that requires all able-bodied men to serve for around two years.

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun offered condolences when asked at a regular briefing about any plans for institutional changes regarding military service for transgender people, but said further discussions were needed.

The National Human Rights Commission issued a statement honoring Byun's "fight against deep-rooted discrimination and hatred", and vowing efforts to improve the system.