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The issue of transgender people and military service in South Korea is a complex topic, regarding gender identity and bodily autonomy. Currently, transgender women are excluded from the military of South Korea.[1][2]


Transgender Individuals in South Korean Society

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Transgender self-identification visibly emerged in the 2000s after Korean singer Harisu publicly came out as a transgender woman.[3] Although there was a dramatic emergence in the 2000s, transgender identity can be traced back to the 1950s. In earlier history, transgender identity was referred to as yeojangnamja, which translates to "men in women's clothes", and jungseong, which translates to "gender neutral".[citation needed]

The Resident Registration System

The Resident Registration System establishes three parts of a citizen's legal identification: their birthday, place of origin, and gender. Gender is a binary code of 1 and 3, indicating male, or 2 and 4, indicating female.[4] Individuals who have transitioned can petition to have their number changed.[5] Those who are unable to change their legal gender and ID number can face problems, such as finding work and accessing services.[4]

In 2013, a court ruled that transgender individuals did not need to have sex reassignment surgeries to legally change their gender.[6] During this time, requests by transgender individuals to change their Family Register number to reflect their gender were filed.[6] However, few were actually granted.[6]

Previously, transgender individuals who wished to legally change their gender had to provide proof they were unmarried, did not have minor children, and had parental consent, regardless of their age.[7] However, on November 24, 2022, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that having minor children is no longer a valid reason to deny an individual a legal sex status change.[8]

Another step in legal gender change is a medical and psychological examination.[4] Courts rely almost exclusively on this examination to proceed with the change[citation needed]. Medical examinations and treatment are not covered by health insurance, and few facilities offer specific treatment for transgender people.[9][7] This creates barriers for transgender individuals who do not have enough money to pay for examinations or gender affirming surgery.

Discriminatory Policies (Article 92-6)

South Korea does not allow same sex couples to marry or adopt children, and there are no laws that prevent workplace discrimination or hate crimes against LGBT+ individuals.[10] Additionally, the South Korean military criminalizes same-sex relations.[4] Section 6 of Article 92 in the Korean Military Penal Code considers sex acts that occur between two individuals of the same gender to be molestation, even with consent,[4] and is punishable for up to two years.[11] The South Korean Constitutional Court reviewed Article 92 in 2002 and 2011 and found its content to be constitutional.[4] The South Korean government supports Article 92 in that it maintains discipline among the predominantly male military.[12] Article 92-6 does not explicitly reference transgender people. However, this policy has the potential to impact transgender individuals who have yet to have gender reassignment surgery (GRS). For example, a heterosexual transgender women who hasn't had GRS.

In 2005, eight soldiers were discharged for being gay.[13] In cases like these, sexuality is determined by doctor diagnosis and testimony from fellow soldiers.[13] In 2017, 32 men were charged with sodomy after military authorities began an investigation to crack down on "homosexual activities" amongst soldiers.[14] This included the use of Article 92–6 to sentence two male soldiers who had sex while off-base and off-duty.[15] However, in April 2022, the Supreme Court reversed their convictions on the grounds that criminalizing same-sex acts that occur off-base and off-duty would deny the soldiers their "rights to nondiscrimination, equality, dignity... and [pursuit of] happiness."[15][16]

Transgender Individuals in the Military

Service in the South Korean military became mandatory for all male citizens in 1949.[4] Because South Korea is technically still at war with North Korea, attempts to end mandatory military service continue to be denied.[4] According to cultural anthropologist Timothy Gitzen, this is called a "Cold War binary."[9] As of 2019, men ages 18 to 35 must spend a minimum of 21 months in active duty.[5]

Body examinations

At age 19, male citizens have their bodies closely examined by the Military Manpower Administration (MMA).[4][5] The physical and psychological examination work together to determine how "suitable" an individual is for military service.[5] Historically, the MMA has accused individuals of identifying as transgender in order to evade conscription.[17] Some physicians suspected individuals were claiming to be transgender in order to be exempt from active duty.[17] They reportedly asked these individuals to undergo surgical procedures, such as an orchiectomy.[17]

The Draft Physical Examination in 1978 introduced "sexual perversion," later called "gender identity disorder," to determine physical and mental disabilities.[citation needed] If trans people have already been examined by medical professionals, they have to provide either a court decision or their entire physical examination report thus far that proves that they are, in fact, transgender.[18]

Transgender women

Conscription into the military is determined by the gender code within an individual's Resident Registration Number (RRN).[5] Transgender women who have not legally changed their RRN will be conscripted into the military to serve as "men".[5]

Due to the high cost of surgeries, many trans women cannot be exempt by way of legal gender change.[5][7] Another way to gain exemption from active duty is to be diagnosed with "severe gender identity disorder" by a military doctor.[5] This "disorder" is classified as either mild or severe.[5] Because the MMA has previously charged women with identifying as transgender in order to evade conscription, several transgender women report feeling compelled to "undergo irreversible surgeries," such as an orchiectomy, which is the removal of the testicles.[5][19] Between 2012 and 2015, 104 transgender women were exempt based on "testicle loss" and only 21 transgender women were exempt from service based on gender identity disorder.[9]

Trans women serving as "men" are assigned to second eligible conscription status, also known as de facto exemption, in the military.[citation needed]

Byun Hui-su is a woman who transitioned during her time in the South Korean military.[20] On January 22, 2020, she was discharged after undergoing gender reassignment surgery.[20] In March 2021, the 23-year-old was found dead in her home.[21] The South Korean court later found this discharge to be unlawful and discriminatory. The court made no further remarks about transgender individuals serving in the military.[22]

Transgender men

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Transgender men are not required to undergo a physical examination and are automatically exempt from active duty as the MMA considers them "disabled and impaired."[4] Under Article 136 of the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act, they are assigned to the second eligible conscription status which is reserved for individuals such as convicts and orphans.[4][23] A transgender man who has not changed his legal gender will still be considered a "female," will not be conscripted, and is barred from volunteering to serve as a "man" in the military.[5]


  1. ^ "'I will continue to fight': South Korea's first transgender soldier vows to oppose dismissal | Reuters Video". Reuters. 22 January 2020. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  2. ^ "Transgender soldier to sue military over dismissal". BBC. 22 January 2020. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  3. ^ "Harisu, As Beautiful As Any Woman: LGBT In The Entertainment Industry". Seoulbeats. 12 July 2012. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Na, Tari Young-Jung; Han, Ju Hui Judy; Koo, Se-Woong (2014). "The South Korean Gender System: LGBTI in the Contexts of Family, Legal Identity, and the Military". The Journal of Korean Studies. 19 (2): 357–377. doi:10.1353/jks.2014.0018. JSTOR 43923275. S2CID 143736307 – via JSTOR.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "SOUTH KOREA: SERVING IN SILENCE: LGBTI PEOPLE IN SOUTH KOREA'S MILITARY". Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  6. ^ a b c "Landmark legal ruling for South Korean transgenders". Retrieved 25 July 2019.
  7. ^ a b c "STONEWALL GLOBAL WORKPLACE BRIEFINGS 2018" (PDF). Stonewall.
  8. ^ Kuhn, Anthony (25 November 2022). "South Korea's supreme court rules on legal transgender recognition". Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  9. ^ a b c Gitzen, Timothy (2018). "Sex/Gender Insecurities Trans Bodies and the South Korean Military". Transgender Studies Quarterly. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  10. ^ Diplomat, Timothy S. Rich and Isabel Eliassen , The. "What's Behind South Korea's Persistent LGBT Intolerance?". The Diplomat. Retrieved 25 July 2019.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ James Griffiths, Jake Kwon and Paula Hancocks (11 July 2019). "Report: LGBTQ soldiers say they were abused in South Korean military". CNN. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
  12. ^ "South Korea: Military 'Sodomy' Law Violates Rights". Human Rights Watch. 7 March 2019. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  13. ^ a b "Gay Soldiers Booted From South Korean Army". Advocate. 18 February 2006. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  14. ^ Sang-Hun, Choe (26 April 2017). "South Korea Military Is Accused of Cracking Down on Gay Soldiers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  15. ^ a b "South Korea: Landmark judgement on same-sex sexual acts in military a huge victory for LGBTI rights". Amnesty International. 21 April 2022. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  16. ^ "South Korean Court Limits Military 'Sodomy' Law". Human Rights Watch. 25 April 2022. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  17. ^ a b c "South Korea: treatment of transgender people by society and authorities, including requirements and procedures to change one's gender on identity documents; requirements and procedures for exemption from obligatory military service for a male who is in the process of undergoing gender transformation; consequences for not completing military service (2014-March 2016)". Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 24 March 2016. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  18. ^ "국가법령정보센터 | 법령 > 본문 - 병역판정 신체검사 등 검사규칙". Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  19. ^ "2014 - 2014 area 6. Military". Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  20. ^ a b Human Rights Watch (16 December 2020), "South Korea: Events of 2020", English, retrieved 27 November 2022
  21. ^ "South Korea's first transgender soldier found dead". BBC News. 3 March 2021. Retrieved 8 August 2021.
  22. ^ "S Korean court: Discharge of late transgender soldier unjust". AP NEWS. 7 October 2021. Retrieved 27 November 2022.
  23. ^ "Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act". Korea Legislation Research Institute. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
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