By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL -South Korea’s defence ministry said on Thursday a member of the air force has been arrested on charges of sexually harassing and injuring a female colleague, an attack her family said led to her suicide.
The master sergeant, only identified by his surname Jang, is suspected of molesting the woman of the same rank in a car on their way back to their base in the western city of Seosan in March after a dinner, the ministry said.
The case follows a series of incidents that prompted the military to tighten rules and penalties for sexual abuse. But activists say the military is still too soft on those responsible for abuse and it often fails to protect their victims.
The latest victim, identified only by her surname Lee, had suffered mental distress and transferred to another base at her request two months after the incident, her family said in a petition to President Moon Jae-in over the case.
She was found dead at her home on the base on May 22, the military said. Her family said she killed herself and left a video on her mobile phone of her death.
A military court approved Jang’s arrest on Wednesday on charges of violating the Criminal Act by committing indecent acts by compulsion on a member of the military and causing injury.
“He is detained after a hearing and an investigation is under way,” ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan told a briefing.
The spokesman gave no more details about the case and did not say if the man had legal representation. Jang did not respond to reporters’ questions as he was escorted to the military court on Wednesday, the Yonhap news agency reported.
The case has triggered a public uproar since the woman’s family filed a petition with Moon’s office on Tuesday calling for a thorough investigation and punishment for those involved. More than 326,000 members of the public had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon.
The woman’s family has accused the air force of trying to cover up the assault on the woman and to silence her.
“She had suffered persistent bullying since the incident and the military only sought to conceal it, ignored her complaints and pressed her to sign a settlement,” they wrote in the petition.
On Thursday, the family said they filed a complaint with military prosecutors against three officials at Lee’s base, accusing two of them of dereliction of duty and attempted compulsion and the other of sexual harassment.
TIP OF ICEBERG?
The air force said it dismissed two unspecified supervisors involved in Lee’s case who it concluded would be “unable to carry out their duties as usual”. It did not elaborate.
“We deeply acknowledged the gravity of the situation”, air force spokesman Choi Yoon-seok said, declining to comment on the family’s accusations, citing the investigation.
Moon ordered an investigation to include how officials in charge handled the case, and he called for measures to prevent any further stigmatisation of Lee and her family, his spokeswoman said.
The problem of sexual abuse in South Korea was thrown into the spotlight by the global #MeToo movement and several high-profile figures from various walks of life have been accused of sexual harassment and assault.
The 2017 suicide of a female navy captain who said she had been raped by a senior of the rank of colonel caused a public outcry.
The Center for Military Human Rights Korea, an advocacy group, said on Wednesday that a staff sergeant at another air force wing was found last month to have sneaked into a female dormitory and illegally filmed colleagues, but the air force let him continue to work there without penalising him.
The air force said it had ordered an investigation and would follow up with strict punishment.
The defence ministry said it would open a special hotline for two weeks from Thursday to gather reports from any other victims across all military branches.
“We’re afraid Lee’s case might be just the tip of an iceberg,” a ministry official told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“We’ll try our best to console Lee’s family while encouraging other victims to come forward and tightening measures to eradicate sexual abuse.”