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Transgender woman discharged from South Korean army found dead

By PINKY S. ICAMEN Published Mar 04, 2021 7:47 am

South Korea’s first known transgender soldier, Byun Hee-soo, who was discharged from the army in January 2020 after undergoing a gender reassignment surgery, was found dead at her home on Wednesday.

A fire department official said rescue workers were deployed to Byun’s home in the Cheongju neighborhood after mental health counselors reported that she had been unreachable since Feb. 28.

After confirming it was Byun’s body found in her home, authorities said the decomposition of the body indicated she had been dead for days. The cause and manner of death still remains unknown as of this writing.

A local mental health clinic told the police that the 23-year-old attempted to end her life three months ago, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Byun voluntarily enlisted in the army in 2017. In 2019, while on leave, she had a gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.

In January 2020, Byun, then a staff sergeant, was discharged after the defense ministry classified the loss of male genitals as a mental or physical handicap and left Byun unable to continue to serve.

This move by the military prompted Byun to pursue a lawsuit to contest her dismissal.

Byun Hee-soo. Photo from

“I will continue to fight until the day I can remain to serve in the army,” Byun told the media in a press conference in January 2020. “I’ll change the decision until the end, to the Supreme Court.”

In her first public appearance after the military announced its decision, Byun told the press that her decision to undergo surgery was due to her suffering from gender dysphoria, which medical experts define as psychological distress from internal conflict between physical gender and gender identity.

“It was an extremely difficult decision to let my base know of my identity, but once I did, I felt much better,” said Byun, who wanted to re-enter the army as a female soldier but said “my depression got too severe.”

“Apart from my gender identity, I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country,” she said. “Please give me that chance.”

In a letter to the South Korean government, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Byun’s dismissal “would violate the right to work and the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity under international human rights law.”

The New York Times reported that the South Korean government defended its military’s decision and would have to consider how allowing transgender people to serve in the military would affect their “combat readiness against North Korea.”

South Korea, under its Military Service Act, requires all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve in its armed forces for at least 21 months.

Byun had been jobless, with all her applications rejected, since she went public after she was discharged from service, according to a Reuters report.

Until her final days, Byun was still battling her way back to the army but struggled to make a return, as reported by The Korea Herald in mid-February. Byun’s lawyer, Kim Borani, tried to get the schedule for a trial date so Byun could make her case before the army’s commission.

“Two weeks ago, I asked the court again for a date, and that’s all I’ve been doing for the past months. But no answer. I really don’t know what’s taking so long,” the lawyer said, adding “it’s been a painful time for Byun and me.”

Banner image photo from