SAMANTHA GERBASI WRITES — Two months before Master Sergeant Lee took her own life, she was sexually assaulted by her male colleague, Master Sergeant Chang. Lee was sexually assaulted in March and committed suicide in May of 2021.
It is no secret that South Korea’s hypermasculine military culture often turns a blind eye to sexual assault. With that being said, it is important to note that toxic masculine military culture is not unique to South Korea and is present in a majority of military cultures, including America’s. However, Sergeant Lee’s suicide has put a spotlight on South Korean military culture now.
South Korea’s “550,000-member military is considered one of its most hierarchical, male-dominant and paternalistic institutions, and former soldiers say women are treated as playthings rather than colleagues”, according to journalist Choe Sang-Hun. Sergeant Lee is not the only female soldier in South Korea who has committed suicide in order to escape the reality of being sexually assaulted by male colleagues. In the last eight years, there have been four suicides of South Korean female soldiers who had reported being sexually assaulted.
What’s more, most women in the South Korean military feel forced to keep sexual assault incidents a secret. Prior to Sergeant Lee’s death in May, she had confided in a warrant officer and a senior master sergeant that Chang had sexually assaulted her in March. Her superiors attempted to minimize her experience and coerced her to keep quiet about what had happened. Lee’s superiors presumably responded this way to salvage their own reputations, as well as their military’s reputation.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon response from military officials in other countries, too. Take the case of America’s Pfc. Vanessa Guillen. She was murdered in Fort Hood, Texas in April 2020 by a soldier believed to have been her assaulter (and who then killed himself). Sadly, the lack of appropriate redress for sexual assault victims is an all too common occurrence in military cultures.
It wasn’t until early October that law enforcement wrapped up its investigations surrounding Sergeant Lee’s case. As of now, there are 15 military personnel who have been charged in connection with Lee’s death, including Sergeant Chang. Chang has since pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Lee and is now standing trial for the part that he may have played in her suicide.
Lee’s death sparked national outrage, which ultimately led to the indictment of those involved in her sexual assault. But there are still many female soldiers who deserve justice. It appears that Sergeant Lee’s case brought more attention to the sexual assault problem in the South Korean military, but this is not enough to change the narrative. To eliminate the all too easy dismissal or cover-up of sexual assault cases, South Korea’s military must address and reform the deep-rooted hypermasculinity present in its military culture.