Korean LGBT: Trial, Error, and Success

By Jonathan Kim
Cornell International Affairs Review
2012, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Trial and Error, and then Success: Gays in the Media

After actor Hong Seok-chon came out in 2000, he was censored from television. Hong was ostracized by the public eye for being the first Korean celebrity to come out as gay. Hong in an interview in 2008 said that, After I set my foot in the entertainment business, I only thought about popularity, money and fame. But I changed a lot after I came out in 2000. I still think it was the right thing to do. I had many difficulties since then, but because I'm an optimistic person, I didn't run away but squarely faced the world. If I had run away at the time, I don't think I'd be as happy as I am right now.21

Taking into consideration what Hong did was courageous and plausible. "Coming out" in 2000; however, Hong faced a lot of discrimination from Korean society, which prevented other actors and actresses from following Hong's footsteps. Shortly afterwards, Hong became a very successful restaurateur, owning many establishments. Fellow actors and patrons came up to him and congratulated him on his personal endeavors.

Harisu is the first Korean transgender entertainer; however, Korean society had mixed feelings about her at first and eventually tolerated her. Harisu, in contrast to Hong, debuted in 2001 as a transgender postoperation model for a cosmetic TV commercial. Born as a male, she had undergone hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery in the 1990s.22 Harisu is well-known and popular in Korean society. She garnered more sympathy from the conservatives of society because she was born into the world as the wrong gender. Hong came out later in his career, when he was already established as an actor; however, Harisu started her career as an open transgender.

Korean LGBT Rights

Gay rights groups such as Chingusai (gay rights), and Kirikiri (lesbian rights) emerged in the 1990s. Gays and lesbians face many legal obstacles in South Korea. First off, there are mixed feelings regarding homosexuality. The Korean military has a similar policy to the past U.S. policy of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

While homosexuality is not mentioned in the Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code; Article 92 of the Military Penal Code punishes same-sex relationships among soldiers (even consensual ones), as reciprocal rape, and is punishable for up to one year in prison and forced retirement.23 This has been appealed in the Korean constitutional court.

Itaewon, South Korea at night. Its Western-style bars and clubs attract a lot of tourists and its

Itaewon, South Korea at night. Its Western-style bars and clubs attract a lot of tourists and its "Homo Hill" is profiled as a popular hangout for the LGBT community.

Korean gay rights that are notable include Article 2 of the National Human Rights Committee Act states explicitly includes discriminatory acts based on ‘sexual orientation' among those defined as "acts violating the right to equality" that are subject to petition, investigation, and remedy by the Commission.24

Moreover, the Korean Supreme Court ruled people who undergo gender reassignment surgeries are allowed to change all official documents to their newly assigned gender.

Censorship is a problem in Korea, however. From 2001-2003, the Government of South Korea censored many gay-content websites through its Information and Communications Ethics Committee, part of the Ministry of Information and Communication. The ICEC categorized homosexuality in the category of perversion and obscenity. That practice has since been reversed.25

South Korean Military Police patrol joint security areas

South Korean Military Police patrol joint security areas

Currently, there is a debate over equal rights for gay students. The Seoul Office of Education committee considered adding a clause to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The proposal to change the students' bill of rights have been criticized by a coalition of parents for, in their opinion, "encouraging homosexuality."26

In terms of legislative politics, the Democratic Labour Party, which has ten National Assembly representatives, has a Sexual Minorities Committee, which is committed to ending homophobia in South Korea. However, current President Lee Myung-Bak is against same-sex marriage and considers homosexuality abnormal.27

Gays are referred to, in a derogatory manner, as byuntae – meaning abnormal, anomalism, or deviant, or comparable to the word "fag" in the U.S. According to Kim and Hahn, a byuntae is a pansexual person who makes the rational choice to act that way. Byuntae describes modern gay men and lesbians, but it can also refer to the man who takes on the feminine role in a homosexual relationship. The word ‘gay' is not commonly used, but the term "homo" is familiar to describe both male and female homosexuals.28 However, many Korean LGBT rights activists fight these stereotypes.

Table 1. LGBT Rights in Korean Society

Table 1. LGBT Rights in Korean Society

Table 1 shows whether there are LGBT rights in different segments of Korean society. The trend is overwhelmingly positive in favor of LGBT rights in most parts of the society, thus the prospect for LGBT rights look very bright. Korean society in the past has rejected homosexuality as a foreign and un-Korean value because Korea has a long history of living under a military-run government, and many did not know, or were not particularly concerned about homosexuality in Korea's history.

Mainly traditional and religious groups have voiced concerns against homosexuality, which has partially stifled the LGBT movement. The South Korean Government merely reflected the zeitgeist of anti-gay expressions from the 1950s-1980s. However the 1990s brought in a new era of a global capitalist economy and introduced a sense of individualism into Korean society, compelling individuals to create strong issue advocacy groups such as Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAG), Chingusai, and Kirikiri, among others, which have fought against the stigma of being gay or lesbian. However, many in Korea still refuse to "come out" today because there is too large of a negative societal judgment attached to homosexuality.

While being LGBT is not widely accepted in Korea today, there is a lot more potential in the near future than we expect because of Korean LGBT history, Korean democratization, and Korean legal structures that push for LGBT equality.


References

Bong, Youngshik D. “The Gay Rights Movement in Democratizing Korea.” Korean Studies 32, (January 2008): 86-103. LGBT Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2011).

Cho, J.. 2009. “The Wedding Banquet Revisited: “Contract Marriages” Between Korean Gays and Lesbians.” Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 2, (April 1): 401-422. (accessed October 31, 2011).

“Do ask, do tell in South Korea.” Advocate no. 959 (March 28, 2006): 24. Gender Studies Database, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2011). .

“Eight Years After Coming Out as Gay, Hong Seok-chon Is Thriving.” (accessed December 9, 2011).

Ee Kee, Li. “Eve from Adam.” The Star Online. Last modified September 19, 2005. Accessed April 12, 2012.

“Gay and lesbian Asia: culture, identity, community.” Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 3/4 (2001): 1-269. Social Sciences Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed November 23, 2011). .

Hahm, Pyong-choon. Korean Jurisprudence, Politics and Culture. S. Korea: Yonsei University Press, 1986.

Kim, Young-Gwan, and Sook-Ja Hahn. 2006. “Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 8, no. 1: 59-65. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 28, 2011). .

Riley, Ann. “South Korea rights commission finds military gay ban unconstitutional.” JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2011. (accessed December 11, 2011).

Schwartzman, Nathan. “SKorea: Debate over equal rights for gay students.” Asiancorrespondent.com, 2011. (accessed December 11, 2011).

Soo Jin, Park-Kim, Lee-Kim Soo Youn, and Kwon-Lee Eun Jung. “The Lesbian Rights Movement and Feminism in South Korea.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 10, no. 3/4 (September 2006): 161-190. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2011).

“Statement of the Republic of Korea.” The 19th Session of the Human Rights Council. Last modified March 7, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012. < http://che-geneva.mofat.go.kr/webmodule/htsboard/template/ read/korboardread.jsp?typeID=15&boardid=3266&seqno=916126&c=&t=&pagenum=1&tableName=TYPE_LEGATION &pc=&dc=&wc=&lu=&vu=&iu=&du=>.

“Youngshik D. Bong, Ph.D.”American University, 2009. Accessed December 11, 2011.

“Naver Encyclopedia, 2011 Copyright © NHN Corp (accessed December 12, 2011).


Endnotes

  1. I refer to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender hereafter as LGBT.
  2. Soo Jin, Park-Kim, Lee-Kim Soo Youn, and Kwon-Lee Eun Jung. «The Lesbian Rights Movement and Feminism in South Korea.» Journal of Lesbian Studies 10, no. 3/4 (September 2006): 161
  3. Young-Gwan Kim and Sook-Ja Hahn. 2006. “Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 8, no. 1: 60.
  4. Ibid., 61-62.
  5. Ibid., 61.
  6. Ibid., 61.
  7. Ibid., 62.
  8. Kim, Young-Gwan, and Sook-Ja Hahn. 2006. “Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 8, no. 1: 62-63.
  9. Youngshik D. Bong, Ph.D is the Assistant Professor of Comparative & Regional Studies in the School of International Service at American University, Washington D.C.
  10. Bong, Youngshik D. “The Gay Rights Movement in Democratizing Korea.” Korean Studies 32, (January 2008): 88
  11. Ibid., 88.
  12. Naver Encyclopedia, 2011.
  13. Soo Jin, Park-Kim, Lee-Kim Soo Youn, and Kwon-Lee Eun Jung. “The Lesbian Rights Movement and Feminism in South Korea.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 10, no. 3/4 (September 2006): 162-163.
  14. © 1999-2011 LGBT Korea. www.ivancity.com
  15. Cho, J.. 2009. “The Wedding Banquet Revisited: “Contract Marriages” Between Korean Gays and Lesbians.” Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 2, (April 1): 402.
  16. Ibid., 417.
  17. Ibid., 409.
  18. Ibid., 403.
  19. Ibid., 416.
  20. Ibid., 406.
  21. “Eight Years After Coming Out as Gay, Hong Seok-chon Is Thriving,” (accessed December 9, 2011), .
  22. Li Ee Kee, “Eve from Adam,” The Star Online, last modified September 19, 2005, (accessed April 12 , 2012), .
  23. Craig Young. “Being Gay in South Korea.” Gaynz.com April 9, 2008. (accessed December 12, 2011). .
  24. “Statement of the Republic of Korea,” The 19th Session of the Human Rights Council last modified March 7, 2012, (accessed April 12, 2012). < http://che-geneva.mofat.go.kr/webmodule/htsboard/template/read/korboardread.jsp?typeID=15&boardid=3266&seqno=916126&c=&t=&pagenum=1&tableNa me=TYPE_LEGATION&pc=&dc=&wc=&lu=&vu=&iu=&du=>.
  25. “Internet Censorship in South Korea.” I-policy.org. (accessed December 12, 2011). .
  26. Nathan Schwartzmann. “SKorea: Debate over equal rights for gay students.” Asiancorrespondent.com October 21, 2011. (accessed December 12, 2011). http://asiancorrespondent.com/67609/skorea-debate-over-equal-rights-for-gay-students/>.
  27. Craig Young. “Being Gay in South Korea.” Gaynz.com April 9, 2008.
  28. Kim, Young-Gwan, and Sook-Ja Hahn. 2006. “Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 8, no. 1: 63.

Photos courtesy of:

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

This article uses two decision-making theories – rational choice theory and prospect theory – to examine China’s resolution to intervene militarily in the Korean War. I argue that Chairman Mao Zedong was in a domain of loss both domestically and internationally when the U.N. Command crossed the 38 Parallel and... MORE»
Advertisement
Chinese intervention in Korea in October 1950 continued a period of hideous violence and death in China's history. Between 1927 and 1949, around 21.5 to 27.5 million Chinese had died in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the Chinese Civil War. Despite this terrible loss of life, exactly one year after the founding of the People... MORE»
Ever since its elimination from the list of mental illnesses in 2001, and decriminalization in 1997, homosexuality in China continues to be at the forefront of China’s growing human rights debate. The estimated 40 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) Chinese[1] are victims of violence or discrimination both... MORE»
South Korea, also known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), is a remarkable country in many ways. It survived the Korean War, supported by American military assistance. It successfully transitioned to democracy after nearly 40 years of authoritarian government. South Korea now boasts a strong economy that joined the trillion-dollar... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in International Affairs

2017, Vol. 11 No. 1
This article examines the reasons why racism persists in Cuba more than fifty years after the 1959 Revolution in which Fidel Castro promised Afro-Cubans to eradicate racism from the island. More specifically, it investigates Cuba's racist history... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 11 No. 1
As with much of the African continent, the Congo endured a harsh colonial past. What trailed, after its 1960 independence from Belgium, also followed a similar trend of its continental neighbors – continued foreign meddling. At the outset,... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 12
In 2010, over 250,000 Syrian farmers were forced from their land due to water shortages. Lack of water left these farmers dangerously food insecure, so they moved, en masse, into Syrian urban centers. This strained an already overburdened infrastructure... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 11
This article uses two decision-making theories – rational choice theory and prospect theory – to examine China’s resolution to intervene militarily in the Korean War. I argue that Chairman Mao Zedong was in a domain of loss both... Read Article »
2011, Vol. 3 No. 12
As we move from Fordism to Post-Fordism and from Industrialism to Post-Industrialism, the new Market that prevails under Globalization implies many changes to the nature of work and organizations. This new Market dictates, or rather governs, the... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 11
South Sudan is the youngest and one of the most volatile nations in the world. After two decades of war, it gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace, however, was short-lived. As oil prices plummeted and competition intensified, an ill-... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 10 No. 2
In recent decades, Japan and South Korea have become hosts to ethnic return migrants who have returned to their ancestral homeland after once emigrating overseas. Since the 1980s, the Brazilian nikkeijin, or members of the Japanese diaspora, have... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article
How to Manage a Group Project (Video)
How to Use Regression Analysis Effectively