South Korea To Play Brazil In Pre-World Cup Friendly

File photo: Soccer balls are seen on the ground prior to the opening game of South Korea’s K-League football match between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju on May 8, 2020. JUNG YEON-JE / AFP

 

South Korea will host top-ranked Brazil in a friendly ahead of this year’s World Cup, the nation’s football association said Wednesday.

The national team, captained by Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, will take on Brazil on June 2 in Seoul before squaring off against Chile and Paraguay on June 6 and 10.

The series of planned matches with South American teams will give South Korea a “good opportunity to assess their objective strength and weakness”, the Korea Football Association said in a statement.

Five-time world champions Brazil are the only team to have played at every World Cup and can call upon some of the best players in the game, such as Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool.

South Korea are 29th in the FIFA rankings and enter their 10th consecutive World Cup after finishing second behind Iran in Group A in the final round of Asian qualifying.

They will play Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana in Group H when the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in November.

South Korea has advanced to the knockout stage only twice.

Their best showing was a semifinal spot at the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with Japan. They made the round of 16 at the 2010 edition in South Africa.

This year, the team will look to captain Son, who has scored 19 goals in the 2021-22 Premier League season, to lead them beyond the group stages.

North Korea Slams ‘Feeble’ Biden

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech about the Russian war in Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
In this file photo, US President Joe Biden delivers a speech about the Russian war in Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

North Korea has described Joe Biden as an “old man in his senility”, in a characteristically colourful personal attack on the US president after he accused the Russian leader of war crimes in Ukraine.

The diatribe came after Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” and called for him to be put on trial over alleged atrocities against civilians in Ukraine’s Bucha.

“The latest story is the US chief executive who spoke ill of the Russian president with groundless data,” said a commentary carried by the official KCNA news agency on Saturday.

“Such reckless remarks can be made only by the descendants of Yankees, master hand at aggression and plot-breeding,” it added.

READ ALSO: Ukraine War Pushes World Food Prices To Record High

It described Biden as a “president known for his repeated slip of tongue”, but stopped short of referring to him by name.

“The conclusion could be that there is a problem in his intellectual faculty and that his reckless remarks are just a show of imprudence of an old man in his senility,” said the commentary, which was issued on Saturday evening.

“Gloomy, it seems, is the future of the U.S. with such a feeble man in power.”

Along with Beijing, Russia is one of the North’s few international friends and has previously come to the regime’s aid.

Moscow has long held the line against increasing pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea, even asking for relief from international sanctions for humanitarian reasons.

Pyongyang has also sided with Moscow in its war with Ukraine, accusing the United States of being the “root cause” of the crisis.

North Korea’s state media has a long history of colourful personal attacks against foreign leaders.

Before Biden was nominated as candidate, it called him “a rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death with a stick”.

It referred to former US President Donald Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard” and his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush a “monkey” and “half-baked man”.

It also has railed against former South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a  “witch” and a “crafty prostitute”.

AFP

Wife Of South Korean Presidential Candidate In ‘Hot Water’ Over Rape Comments

This picture taken on December 26, 2021, shows Kim Keon-hee, wife of South Korean main opposition People Power Party’s presidential candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol, speaking during a press conference at the headquarters of the party in Seoul. The victim of one of South Korea’s most high-profile #Metoo cases has demanded an apology January 2022 after a South Korean presidential candidate’s wife said sexual assault whistle-blowers only spoke out because they were not paid enough. YONHAP / AFP

 

A South Korean opposition party distanced itself Tuesday from comments made by its presidential candidate’s wife, in which she expressed strong support for a former politician currently in prison for rape.

The socially conservative country has been rocked in recent years by a #MeToo movement in which women working for prominent politicians made multiple sexual assault allegations.

The movement has met an at-times misogynistic backlash, with widespread vilification of feminist campaigners and some high-profile women.

South Koreans will elect a new president in March, with the two leading candidates currently neck and neck in the polls.

People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol’s wife made her controversial comments in a phone conversation with a reporter, which was recorded and released this weekend after a court battle.

In the conversation, Kim Keon-hee came to the defence of Ahn Hee-Jung, a former presidential contender convicted of raping his secretary on multiple occasions. Ahn was jailed for three-and-a-half years.

“I feel really sorry for Ahn. My husband and I are strongly on Ahn’s side,” the potential first lady said in the phone call.

Noting allegations against Democratic Party members, she also suggested sexual assault survivors only speak out if they are not paid enough.

“Conservatives make sure to pay,” she said. “That’s why we don’t see #MeToo happening here… #MeToo cases happen when you don’t pay your dues.”

The secretary who came forward with allegations against Ahn in 2018, and whose testimony helped send him to jail, demanded “a sincere apology” for the comments.

“Your thoughtless remarks have become the seed of second victimisation,” Kim Ji-eun said in a statement released Monday.

The People Power Party, for which Yoon is the nominee, had sought to block the airing of the phone conversations with a court injunction, which was thrown out Friday.

A local television channel broadcast the comments over the weekend.

The party downplayed the comments on Tuesday, with party chairman Lee Jun-Seok saying in a radio interview that they were “an expression of personal views”.

While South Korea is the world’s 10th-largest economy and a leading technological power, it remains a patriarchal society with predominantly conservative social mores.

Yoon, a former top prosecutor, is locked in a tight race with ruling-party candidate Lee Jae-Myung with the polling gap between the candidates often falling within the margin for error.

Incumbent President Moon Jae-in is legally barred from seeking a second term and is scheduled to step down in May.

EU Blocks Mega-Merger Of South Korean Shipbuilders

A logo for the European Union

 

The EU on Thursday vetoed the merger of two South Korean ship-making giants over concerns the deal would restrict the supply of large liquefied gas carriers, posing a threat to Europe’s energy security.

The rejection by Europe, a huge market for the South Korean shipyards, came as energy prices remain high and the EU is scrambling to diversify its fossil fuel supply away from Russia and to greener alternatives than coal.

The takeover of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering by rival Hyundai Heavy Industries Holdings, the European Commission said, “would have created a dominant position by the new merged company and reduced competition in the worldwide market for LNG carriers”.

The veto comes two years after Brussels stopped India’s Tata Steel and Germany’s Thyssenkrupp from merging, and three years after it blocked the merger of the train-making businesses of Siemens and Alstom, angering France and Germany.

The EU has the power to vet and reject mergers of any companies, even non-European, that have a decisive impact on its vast market of 450 million people.

“Given the evidence of negative effects of the merger (and) the absence of remedies, the Commission decided to block the merger,” said EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager at a news briefing.

The EU found that the merged entities would create a group controlling nearly two-thirds of the global market of LNG cargo ships that carry super-chilled liquid gas.

Hyundai called the commission’s conclusion unreasonable and disappointing, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The builder pointed out that the commission had only taken issue with the LNG vessel market and that it reserved the right to fight the veto in EU court.

– ‘Few alternatives’ –

“The Commission’s use of the market share as evaluation criteria has no probative value as the market share itself is not a proper indicator of market power in the shipbuilding industry,” HHIH said in a statement.

LNG ships are the only sector that the EU took issue with in terms of dominant position, HHIH said.

“European customers would be left with few alternatives to the merged entity, only a handful of competitors would remain in the market,” Vestager warned.

“It does not matter where the merging firms are located. What matters is whether they compete for demand in Europe,” she said.

The former Danish minister said that Europeans counted for half of the total demand for the construction of LNG vessels, which had ballooned to 40 billion euros over the past five years.

With Europe a major source of clients, the veto by the EU authority poses a major obstacle to the planned tie-up.

The merger of the two of the largest shipyards in the world had been notified to the EU in November 2019, which opened an in-depth investigation the following month.

Vestager admitted that this was an unusually long process and despite efforts, the sides failed to come up with a acceptable solution.

The merger has been accepted in China and Singapore, with decisions still pending in the Japan and South Korea.

South Korea Detects First Omicron Cases, Tightens Travel Curbs

Visitors wait to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing centre in Seoul on December 1, 2021, amid growing concerns about the Omicron Covid-19 variant. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

 

South Korea on Wednesday reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant and tightened travel restrictions as fears grew about the strain’s impact on the country’s ongoing Covid surge.

Health authorities said Omicron was detected in five people, including a fully vaccinated couple who had visited Nigeria from November 14 to 23, returning two days before the variant was officially reported by South Africa.

They tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, and subsequent genetic sequencing tests showed it was the new variant, said the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). It said their friend also had Omicron.

While much is still unknown about Omicron, its emergence has fuelled fears in South Korea and around the world that it could intensify Covid-19 outbreaks.

The WHO believes the high number of mutations on this variant may make it more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, but it could take weeks to determine whether and to what extent Omicron is vaccine-resistant.

It has warned against blanket travel bans, but dozens of governments around the world have rushed to impose restrictions — mostly against southern African nations — as the variant spreads.

READ ALSO: International Migration Rose Despite COVID-19 Curbs, Says UN

As South Korea reported its first Omicron infections, it also announced a tightening of travel restrictions, including a suspension of direct flights to Ethiopia for two weeks.

It said all travellers entering the country will be tested for the new variant.

And from Friday for two weeks, all arrivals — South Koreans and foreigners — will have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status, KDCA said.

Earlier, exemptions were available in a number of cases, such as fully vaccinated South Korean nationals.

The government had already stopped issuing visas and arrivals of non-nationals from eight African countries, and added Nigeria to that list on Wednesday.

The detection of South Korea’s first Omicron cases came the same day the country reported more than 5,100 new daily infections, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

More than 80 percent of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated.

On the back of the rapid immunisation programme, authorities eased Covid restrictions earlier this month as they started rolling out their plan to live with the virus.

However, there has been a surge in infections since — new daily infections have more than doubled in recent weeks, and authorities have warned about the growing pressure on the healthcare system.

South Korea’s Ko Regains Top Rank With BMW Ladies Championship Win

Ko Jin-young of South Korea kisses the trophy at the awards ceremony after winning the LPGA Tour 2021 – BMW Ladies Championship golf tournament in Busan on October 24, 2021. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

 

South Korean star Ko Jin-young regained the world’s number one spot on Sunday, capturing her fourth LPGA title of the season at the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea.

The tournament in the port city of Busan is the third Asian event in the US LPGA season this year, after stops in Singapore and Thailand in the spring.

Ko clinched the win to cash the winner’s check of US$300,000 in a sudden-death playoff, beating South Korea’s Lim Hee-Jeong who had been leading the tournament.

It marked the fourth time the 26-year-old has come from behind in the final round to win in her Tour career.

“It was my first playoff in my professional career so my heart was fluttering,” Ko said in a televised interview after her win.

“I feel a little sorry for Hee-Jeong but I think I ended up being lucky,” she added.

Ko shot a bogey-free 64 to finish regulation at 22-under 266, stretching the tournament into a playoff.

In the sudden-death playoff that began at the 18th, she came through with an outstanding hybrid shot and sank a short birdie putt to clinch victory.

“I knew Hee-Jeong is a solid player and I thought I could secure second place if I played my best,” Ko said, adding: “So I was fairly relaxed.”

“I did my best but I do think it is an amazing win,” Ko said.

Lim, who did not have a bogey over 73 holes for four days, failed to come up with the final win.

With her latest victory, Ko reclaimed the top ranking from Nelly Korda of the United States, who did not play in Busan.

Ko first rose to world number one in 2019 and held the ranking for the entire 2020 season — a streak of 100 consecutive weeks — but handed over the top spot to Korda in June this year.

Sunday’s win also marked the 200th LPGA victory by a South Korean, with Pak Se-ri, Park In-bee and Kim Sei-young among the golfers who have contributed to the feat.

After Busan, LPGA has two more tournaments, with the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Florida in November.

South Korea Fines Google Almost $180m For Market Abuse

 

South Korea’s antitrust watchdog fined Google nearly $180 million on Tuesday for abusing its dominance in the mobile operating systems and app markets, it said, the latest in a series of regulatory moves against tech giants around the world.

The penalty came weeks after South Korea passed a law banning major app store operators such as Google and Apple from forcing software developers to use their payment systems, effectively declaring their lucrative Play Store and App Store monopolies illegal.

And last week a US judge ordered Apple to loosen control over its App Store payment system in an antitrust battle with Fortnite maker Epic Games.

Google and Apple dominate the online app market in South Korea, the world’s 12th largest economy and known for its technological prowess.

The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) has investigated Google since 2016 for allegedly preventing local smartphone makers such as Samsung Electronics from customising its Android OS.

It said Google hampered market competition through an “anti-fragmentation agreement” preventing smartphone makers installing modified versions of Android, known as “Android forks”, on their devices.

“Because of this, device makers could not launch innovative products with new services,” the KFTC added in a statement.

“As a result, Google could further cement its market dominance in the mobile OS market.”

It fined Google 207.4 billion won ($176.8 million) and ordered the global tech giant to take corrective steps.

Google said the decision “will undermine the advantages enjoyed by consumers” and added it plans to appeal, according to Yonhap news agency.

“Android’s compatibility programme has spurred incredible hardware and software innovation, and brought enormous success to Korean OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and developers,” it cited Google saying in a statement.

“This, in turn, has led to greater choice, quality and a better user experience for Korean consumers.”

Google has maintained that its Play Store commissions charged are standard in the industry and fair compensation for building safe marketplaces where developers can reach people around the world.

The Play Store had revenues of almost 6 trillion won ($5.2 billion) in 2019, accounting for 63 per cent of the country’s total, according to data from Seoul’s science ministry.

South Korea Air Force Chief Resigns Over Sex Assault Case

Air Force Chief of Staff General Lee Seong-yong in a photo taken in 2010. He apologised for the death of the victim. (PHOTO: REPUBLIC OF KOREA AIR FORCE)

 

 

South Korea’s air force chief resigned Friday over the suicide of a woman master sergeant who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a colleague only to have her complaints ignored.

The incident has caused an outcry in the South, which maintains a conscript army to defend itself against the nuclear-armed North and remains deeply patriarchal despite its economic and technological advances.

The master sergeant, identified only by her surname Lee, is said to have been assaulted by her colleague in a vehicle in March, according to the defence ministry.

She filed a complaint, but her family says she was pressured by her superiors to drop the case and sign a settlement.

She was then transferred to a different base at her own request and found dead at her quarters late last month.

Her family says she left footage of her death on her phone, and her mother told a local broadcaster: “How can you protect a country when you can’t even protect a member of your own military?

“How could you make her feel this lonely? How could you make her feel there was no one there for her and she had to make such an extreme choice?”

By Friday afternoon around 350,000 people had signed a petition to the presidential office, calling for a thorough investigation.

A suspect in the case was arrested earlier this week and an investigation is continuing.

Air force chief general Lee Seong-yong offered his resignation Friday, which was quickly accepted by President Moon Jae-in.

“I feel heavy responsibility over the series of circumstances,” the general said.

“I express my deep condolences to the victim and extend sincere condolences to the bereaved family.”

The woman’s death comes amid growing discussion over whether the South’s all-male draft should be abolished.

All able-bodied male citizens have to serve for nearly two years but women can volunteer for the military.

Barrack-room bullying as well as other forms of abuse have long tainted South Korea’s military service and have resulted in several suicides and deadly shooting sprees in the past.

In March, a transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after gender-reassignment surgery took her own life, prompting another public outcry.

Meanwhile the South is regularly at the bottom of OECD rankings for the gender pay gap, and sexual harassment victims — the vast majority of them women — often face pressure to stay silent for fear of public shaming, stigma and career disadvantages.

“The military epitomises South Korea’s toxic masculinity, where violence is so often justified in the name of security,” women’s rights activist Kwon Soo-hyun told AFP.

“It’s the most patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusive community in the country. What we’ve seen in Lee’s case is that this masculinity kills people, both men and women.”

North Korea Accuses Biden Of Pursuing ‘Hostile Policy,’ Warns Of Response

A photo combination of US President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
A photo combination of US President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

 

North Korea on Sunday accused US President Joe Biden of pursuing a hostile policy, dismissing “spurious” American diplomacy and warning of a response.

Biden had said Wednesday that his administration would deal with the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear programme “through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence”.

The White House said Friday that the president was open to negotiations with North Korea on denuclearisation following the completion of a policy review, but Pyongyang said Biden had made a “big blunder”.

“His statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century,” Kwon Jung Gun, a foreign ministry official, said in a statement released by the official KCNA news agency.

“The U.S.-claimed ‘diplomacy’ is a spurious signboard for covering up its hostile acts, and ‘deterrence’ touted by it is just a means for posing nuclear threats to the DPRK,” Kwon added, using the official name of North Korea.

“Now that what the keynote of the U.S. new DPRK policy has become clear, we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures.”

The White House said Friday that its goal remains “the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

READ ALSO: US Formally Begins Withdrawing Troops From Afghanistan War

Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki gave little indication of what kind of diplomatic initiative this could entail but suggested that the president had learned from the experience of his predecessors, who struggled to deal with North Korea’s leadership and its nuclear weapons programme.

But Psaki said Washington would not “focus on achieving a grand bargain”, apparently referring to the kind of dramatic over-arching deal that former president Donald Trump initially suggested was possible when he met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.

Neither would the White House follow the more standoffish approach espoused by Barack Obama, she added.

‘A political trick’ 

In a separate statement through KCNA Sunday, North Korea also accused the United States of insulting its leadership and its anti-coronavirus measures, referring to a State Department press release on April 28.

State Department spokesman Ned Price had issued a statement that day criticising North Korea’s human rights abuses and draconian Covid-19 curbs, describing it as “one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world”.

File photo:  U.S. President Joe Biden listens during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate with 40 world leaders in the East Room of the White House on April 22, 2021, in Washington, DC. Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images/AFP

 

“The ‘human rights issue’ touted by the U.S. is a political trick designed to destroy the ideology and social system in the DPRK,” the North Korean foreign ministry said in the statement.

And in a third statement issued Sunday, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong lashed out at South Korea over a recent anti-Pyongyang leaflet campaign by a defector group.

Activist groups have long sent flyers critical of the North Korean leadership over human rights abuses and its nuclear ambitions across the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, either flying them by hot air balloon or floating them across rivers.

The leaflets have infuriated Pyongyang, which issued a series of vitriolic condemnations last year demanding Seoul take action and upped the pressure by blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border.

The South Korean parliament rapidly passed a law criminalising the leaflet campaigns in December, raising concerns over freedom of speech.

But a defector group said it flew 500,000 leaflets near the DMZ last week in defiance of the law.

Kim Yo Jong blamed South Korean authorities for not stopping them.

“We regard the maneuvers committed by the human wastes in the south as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action,” she said.

AFP

South Korea’s Seoul Submits Bid To Co-Host 2032 Olympics With Pyongyang

File photo: The Olympic Rings are pictured in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne on March 21, 2020, as doubts increase over whether Tokyo can safely host the summer Games amid the spread of the COVID-19. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP.

 

The municipal government of South Korean capital Seoul on Thursday formally notified the International Olympic Committee of its bid to co-host the 2032 Games with North Korea’s Pyongyang, Yonhap news agency reported.

The IOC said in February that Brisbane was its preferred candidate to host the Games, adding it would enter “targeted dialogue” with the Australian bid organisers.

But the Seoul municipal government Thursday urged them to reconsider the bid for the two Koreas to co-host the Games, agreed to at a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in September 2018.

READ ALSO: Top Seeds Medvedev, Osaka Crash Out Of Miami Open

Yonhap reported Seoul’s bid emphasised the peace-building potential of the co-hosting, as well as a “combination of cutting-edge technologies and Korean culture”.

North Korea has not publicly commented on the bid, which comes amid markedly frosty relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The two have not held formal talks in over two years, and last week saw North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s influential sister slam the South’s president as “a parrot raised by America” after he criticised a missile test by Pyongyang.

South Korea last hosted the Olympics in 2018, during which the two Koreas’ teams marched under a united flag. North Korea has never hosted the Olympics.

AFP

South Korea To Pay 13.9% More For US Troop Presence

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 26, 2017 shows South Korean and US soldiers watching from an observation post during a joint live firing drill between South Korea and the US at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, 65 kms northeast of Seoul. (Photo by JUNG Yeon-Je / AFP)

 

South Korea has agreed to pay 13.9 percent more towards the cost of the US troop presence on the peninsula, its foreign ministry said Wednesday, in a six-year deal resolving an issue that festered under the Trump administration.

The financial dispute had bedevilled the two allies’ security alliance after former president Donald Trump — who had a transactional approach to foreign policy — repeatedly accused South Korea of freeloading.

Washington stations around 28,500 troops in South Korea to defend it from the nuclear-armed North Korea, which invaded the South in 1950, and protect US interests in northeast Asia.

Under the new deal, Seoul has agreed to pay 1.18 trillion won ($1.03 billion) for 2021, with annual increases thereafter linked to its defence budget.

The sum represents a 13.9 percent increase on the roughly $920 million Seoul was paying under the previous agreement, which expired in 2019 — but is a far cry from the Trump administration’s initial demand of $5 billion a year.

The new pact “again reaffirmed the need for a stable presence of US troops in Korea,” Seoul’s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding it resolved a vacuum that had lasted for about 15 months.

Both governments announced earlier this week that they had reached an agreement in principle, but the amounts involved were only confirmed on Wednesday.

The new deal must still be approved by the South Korean legislature.

The agreement came as Seoul and Washington kicked off their annual military training on Monday, which has been scaled down from the usual level due to the pandemic, with no large-scale physical troop involvement.

The nine-day exercise is still likely to infuriate North Korea, which has long considered such drills rehearsals for invasion.

North Korea has put itself under strict self-imposed isolation to try to protect itself against the pandemic, adding to the pressure on its moribund economy.

Analysts will be watching to see whether Pyongyang will use the military drills to launch provocations against Washington as it seeks to test the new Biden administration.

AFP

Anger As South Korean Transgender Soldier Is Found Dead

This photo taken in January 2020 shows late transgender South Korean soldier Byun Hee-soo at a press conference in Seoul. Byun, who was forcibly discharged from the army after her operation, has been found dead, police said, prompting anger March 4, 2021 and calls for legal reforms.
STRINGER / YONHAP / AFP

 

A transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after gender-reassignment surgery has been found dead, police said, prompting anger Thursday and calls for legal reforms.

Firefighters found Byun Hee-soo in her home in Cheongju after a mental health counsellor called emergency services to report that she had not been heard from for several days, Yonhap news agency reported.

South Korea remains deeply conservative about matters of sexual identity and is less tolerant of LGBT rights than some other parts of Asia, with many gay and transgender Koreans living largely under the radar.

Byun, formerly a staff sergeant and in her 20s, enlisted voluntarily in 2017. She went on to have gender-reassignment surgery in 2019 in Thailand.

The defence ministry classified the removal of her male genitals as a mental or physical handicap, and a military panel ruled last year that she would be compulsorily discharged.

At the time she waived her anonymity to appear at a press conference, pleading tearfully to be allowed to serve, wearing her fatigues and saluting the gathered journalists and cameras.

“I’m a soldier of the Republic of Korea,” she said, her voice breaking.

Reports said no note was found but the death was being treated as suicide, with Yonhap citing officials saying she had tried to kill herself three months ago.

Byun’s death triggered an outpouring of grief and calls for South Korean MPs to pass an anti-discrimination bill.

A memorial altar for Byun was set up at a local hospital where friends and activists paid their respects Thursday.

Wreaths of white chrysanthemums — a symbol of mourning in Korea — surrounded a portrait of a smiling Byun, in civilian dress.

Tributes were presented by rights groups and liberal politicians including parliamentary vice-speaker Kim Sang-hee, who is the highest-ranking female parliamentarian in South Korea.

After paying her respects, Hong Jeung-sun, a 64-year-old LGBT rights activist whose son came out as gay, told AFP: “This is the third suicide by a member of a sexual minority over the past month alone.

“And there could have been many more who perished in the shadows without us ever knowing. As a parent, it breaks my heart,” she added tearfully.

Byun will be laid to rest Friday.

On Daum, the country’s second-largest web portal, one person wrote: “The whole of Korean society bears responsibility for her death.

“Those who ridiculed her and made malicious online comments because she was transgender, I want you to reflect on what you did to her.”

– Childhood dream –

South Korea has a conscript army to defend itself against the nuclear-armed North, with all able-bodied male citizens obliged to serve for nearly two years.

But Byun was a volunteer non-commissioned officer and said at her press conference last year that serving in the military had always been her childhood dream.

“Putting aside my sexual identity, I want to show everyone that I can be one of the great soldiers defending this country,” she continued, fighting back tears. “Please give me that chance.”

Her case was the first of its kind in South Korea.

Deputy defence ministry spokesman Moon Hong-sik expressed condolences over what he called “the regrettable death of the late former staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo”.

He added that there had been no detailed discussions about transgender soldiers serving in the military.

International rights groups have previously voiced concern about the way the country treats gay soldiers, who are banned from engaging in same-sex acts and can face up to two years in prison if caught — even though such actions are legal in civilian life.

Seo Ji-Hyun, a prosecutor who triggered the country’s #MeToo movement by going public over sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of her superior, declared following Byun’s death: “We could have saved her… We just had to let her live a life true to who she was.”

“Right now anti-discrimination bill”, she added as a hashtag on her Facebook account.

A new bill was proposed last year to take on the country’s deep-seated traditional social values, which are reinforced by powerful megachurches that condemn homosexuality.

The measure would ban favouritism based on sex, race, age, sexual orientation, disability or religion as well as several more unusual criteria such as criminal history, appearance and academic background.

More than a dozen attempts to pass broad anti-discrimination laws have failed over the past 14 years in the face of strong opposition from conservative churches and civic groups.

-AFP