South Korea air force chief quits over death, sex abuse case

President Moon Jae-in immediately accepted Lee Seong-yong’s resignation making him the country’s shortest-serving head of the air force.

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 [File: Jeon Heon-kyun/Reuters]

South Korea’s air force chief has resigned, apologising and taking responsibility for the death of a member of the force who took her own life, according to her family, after being sexually harassed by a colleague.

Lee Seong-yong offered to step down a day after an air force master sergeant was arrested on charges of molesting and injuring a female colleague of the same rank in March.

“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.”

President Moon Jae-in immediately accepted Lee’s resignation, his press secretary said on Friday, making him the shortest-serving South Korean air force chief after appointing him in September.

The family of the victim said she had suffered mental distress and persistent bullying, and accused the air force of trying to cover up the assault and silence her during the past two months.

The case sparked a public outcry after the woman’s family filed a petition with Moon’s office on Tuesday calling for a thorough investigation and punishment for those involved. More than 326,000 people have signed it so far.

The case also weighs heavily on Moon, whose public approval rating has been steadily declining, and whose party suffered crushing electoral defeats in two major cities before the presidential election next year.

Moon ordered an investigation on Thursday including on how the air force handled the case, as the family reported three officials at Lee’s base to military prosecutors, accusing two of them of dereliction of duty and attempted compulsion and the other of sexual harassment.

The air force on Thursday dismissed two supervisors involved in Lee’s case, without elaborating why.

On Friday, military prosecutors raided the offices of the air force military police at its headquarters and Lee’s base, the defence ministry said.

A series of incidents has prompted the military to tighten rules and penalties for sexual abuse, but activists say the military is still too soft on members accused of wrongdoing.

“The investigation is under way, but so far there were signs that the air force tried to protect its own organisation, rather than the victim, despite her multiple attempts seeking help,” a defence source told Reuters on condition of anonymity citing the investigation.

The woman’s death came amid growing discussion about 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.

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