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South Korean army bids to overturn decision allowing transgender soldier to serve

In this January 22, 2020, file photo, South Korean army Sergeant Byun Hui-su speaks during a press conference at the Center for Military Human Right Korea in Seoul, South Korea (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File) 
Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press

South Korea’s military has said it will appeal a landmark court ruling that reversed its decision to discharge the country’s first known transgender soldier before she was found dead earlier this year.

A local district court ruled this month that the military unlawfully discriminated against the soldier, Sergeant Byun Hui-su, by forcing her out last year for undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

The Defence Ministry said it respects the verdict but has decided to appeal. A ministry official said it plans to ask the Justice Ministry to approve the filing, as required by law.

Local media reported that the ministry was worried about a possible backlash in the military and administrative confusion if it accepts the ruling.

The appeal is expected to draw strong protests from human rights groups, which have been urging the military to accept the verdict and work out measures to guarantee service for sexual minorities.

South Korea prohibits transgender people from joining the military but has no specific laws on what to do with those who have sex change operations during their time in service.

When the army discharged Sergeant Byun in January last year, it cited a law provision allowing it to dismiss personnel with physical or mental disabilities if those weren’t a result of combat or suffered in the line of duty.

In its October 7 ruling, the Daejeon District Court ruled against the discharge, saying that Ms Byun had already informed the army that she had registered her request to change her legal status as a woman with another local court.

Her request for a legal gender change was approved less than a month after her discharge.

Ms Byun was found dead at her home in March at age 23. Before her discharge, Ms Byun, a staff sergeant, told reporters that she wanted to serve as a female soldier near the tense border with North Korea.

Public views on gender issues in South Korea have gradually changed in recent years. However, a strong bias against sexual minorities still runs deep.

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