A South Korean gay rights group has released a series of secret phone recordings in which a soldier was allegedly interrogated about his sexuality, amid allegations the country's top general ordered a sweeping investigation into gay soldiers.
The tape was released this week by the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (MHRK), a Korean NGO that provides legal assistance to gay soldiers. Last week, the group's director, Lim Tae-hoon, called for general Jang Jun-kyu, the Army chief of staff, to step down over claims – since denied – he ordered a witch-hunt that has resulted in charges against at least 20 soldiers.
Homosexuality is not a crime for civilians in South Korea, but is prohibited in the military, and punishable with up to a year in prison. The United States military, which has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in the country and provides training and shares bases with Korean soldiers, has allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly since 2011.
Korean law requires at least two years of military service for male citizens, meaning most South Korean men will spend some time living under the threat of prosecution if they have a same-sex relationship.
Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Moon Sang-kyun said in an April 13 press briefing that the ministry was aware of the group's allegations and was investigating. "We can, however, confirm that the general himself has never made such orders," he said.
A spokesperson for the US Army could not immediately comment on whether the US had raised the issue with Korean counterparts.
MHRK claimed the as yet unverified tape, which was made public through social video startup Dot Face, appeared to reveal ongoing investigations into several men currently serving in the military.
In the audio, the NGO said, an officer with the army's investigation unit allegedly interrogated a soldier about his relationship with another soldier, asking him questions about sex, and pressed for information about other soldiers who may be gay.
At one point, the investigator said he had "400 pages" of evidence about the soldier's relationship: "It’s two books of A4 paper. Just by looking at that, you can totally see your relationship right away with this guy. So if you lie to me, it’s not like we’re just going to let it slide."
The names on the audio have been redacted due to security concerns. The transcripts refer to the alleged military investigator as "investigator," the soldier being interviewed as "Soldier 1," and the man he is being questioned about as "Soldier 2".
A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the Ministry of National Defense is currently in the process of verifying the audio.
On March 5, the investigator pressed Soldier 1 for more names of gay soldiers, saying he knew more than he had already written about in a report.
Investigator: The names that you wrote, you said there were more
Soldier 1: Yes
I: You didn’t mention about the additional names?
S1: I wrote it all in my report.
I: No, what you wrote was who you meet, who you contact, that’s all that you wrote.
I: But in real life, there were other people that were in connection with you — besides these two people.
S1: But I told you the day that I was investigated, too, regarding these other people ...
S1: That I knew the two people’s names and everything accurately
S1: But the other people, I don’t know their names, or even if they are military or not. I don’t know them accurately. So I don’t know their status clearly.
I: You don’t know accurately?
S: No, I don’t. I don’t even know their names.
On the same day, the investigator warned Soldier 1 not to tell anybody about the investigation.
I: Among your group of people, you can't tell anyone about the fact that you were investigated.
S1: Yes, I won't do that.
I: Good, don’t contact anyone. If you do, we’re just trying to help you, but it could backlash at you. Don’t tell anyone, and just act normally, okay?
In another conversation on March 22, the investigator asked Soldier 1 how he knows Soldier 2.
S1: He and I are just, like, a brother relationship.
S1: We never did anything from the beginning, no sex.
I: Not even oral or that kind of stuff?
S1: I didn’t even see his thing.
I: So you’re just sleeping over?
S1: Yes, we’ve known each other for so long.
I: When you say long, how long are we talking about?
S1: Almost ten years.
Also on March 22, the investigator told Soldier 1 there is "no need to" lie about his sexuality as they already have proof.
"We have 400 pages of you and [Soldier 2]’s relationship. It’s two books of A4 paper. Just by looking at that, you can totally see your relationship right away with this guy. So if you lie to me, it’s not like we’re just going to let it slide."
On Mach 27, the investigator again asked Soldier 1 if he's had sex with Soldier 2.
I: How did you get to know him in the first place? Did you meet him on a gay dating app too?
S1: No, just from outside. I went to a gay bar, and we drank together. That’s how we know each other.
I: Did you guys have sex?
I: Is that true?
I: You guys just met up?
On March 29, the investigator asked Soldier 1 if he had contacted "a human rights committee" or sought legal advice over the investigation.
I: I just wanted to ask you.. was there like a human rights committee that you contacted or something?
S1: No, nothing.
I: Nothing, really?
S1: Nothing sir.
I: Then why did I get contacted by someone that someone reached out to a human rights committee? Like you haven’t been seeking legal advice or anything about this?
I: Did [Soldier 2] do it?
S!: We haven’t been doing such a thing.
I: Then why did [redacted] say that we got a call from a human rights committee or something? It sounded a lot like you were seeking legal advice from somewhere, really specifically.
S1: I have never done such a thing.
I: Really? None?
S1: None, sir.
On April 11 the investigator said to Soldier 1 that Soldier 2 decided to get a lawyer, and criticized him as "stupid" for not cooperating with the military investigation.
"That’s stupid, isn’t it? If he gets a lawyer, doesn’t that mean that he’s forcing himself to come out of the closet? If he gets a lawyer, then we have to send in a written summons, tell him where to go, and the human resources department will be able to see everything about him, including the summons.
"If that happens, then the 'confidential' part becomes extremely limited. If he was quietly investigated and cooperated actively like you, we would just say that he was 'actively cooperative in investigation', like I said I would. I don’t know why you guys are making this so difficult."
The Center for Military Human Rights Korea said it will hold a rally on Friday outside the Ministry of National Defense headquarters in Seoul.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at email@example.com.
Jihye Lee is a multimedia journalist based in Seoul, South Korea.
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