Korean LGBT: Trial, Error, and Success

By Jonathan Kim
Cornell International Affairs Review
2012, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

South Korea does not have a strong and visible lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender social movement in the public, despite active issue advocacy organizations, political representation from the Democratic Labour Party, and popular television shows that portray LGBT characters and themes.1 The LGBT movement has had a difficult time growing in South Korea because, as some have argued South Korea has long been ignorant about homosexuality and awareness of ‘gay' had not been discovered until the early 1990s.2 I will look at three causal reasons that best describe the dearth of a growing social movement pushing for LGBT rights.

First, I will challenge the notion that Korean society is conservative in nature, which leaves no room for homosexuality in a cornucopia of traditional attitudes: heterosexual, hierarchical, and patriarchal society,. On the contrary, history shows Koreans indeed encountered homosexuality in the past, and some had even embraced it warmly. Second, I will look at the argument that authoritarian control of South Korea after the Korean War had no room for minority rights, and that the esprit de corps, which developed in the military was inimical to sexual minorities, and diminished gay soldiers from serving in the military.

However this claim is invalid after the 1990s, following the democratization of the Korean governments. Third, I argue that Western culture's notion of "coming out" harms the gay person trying to come out in the Korean society, and creates a parallel gay subculture. The lack of a visibly strong LGBT movement in Korea is because these "liberation" and "coming out" movements tend to be based on Western experiences and Western ideologies, and foreign to Korean traditions. Instead, the Korean LGBT community uses the Internet as an outlet to find the support they cannot find in the Korean public.

Even though Korea seems to be a conservative society and denies the LGBT community the rights and privileges of a free democratic society, Korean government has a laissez-faire policy and listens to constituents' voices regarding homosexuality rather than imposing its own arbitrary restrictions and punishments for being gay. Korea has, in the past, had native homosexual roots, and could allow for more LGBT rights like that of their neighboring states. Korea has woken up to new ways of thinking about homosexuality that are not merely an import of Western ideology — Koreans can be gay and still be part of an effective Korean society.

History of Homosexuality in Korea

South Korea

South Korea

In modern day Korea, there is a lack of visible LGBT culture in society. Homosexuality has been a taboo subject because, according to Confucianism, it disrupts social harmony by breaking the family continuum. In Korean Jurisprudence, Politics and Culture, Hahm Pyongchoon argues that Shamanism is the foundation of the Korean worldview.

Shamanism, at best, accepts the diverse intensity of sexuality among people and can accommodate those who disdain human reproduction. Hahm characterizes homosexuals as people who "disdain human reproduction" because they engage in non-procreative sex. This illustrates how Koreans share traditional marriage values with the Judeo-Christian culture as the two cultures share an opinion on the importance of procreative sex.

In terms of Korean values, according to Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea, authors Y.G. Kim and S.J. Hahn agree The SamKang-Oh-Ryun (The Three Fundamental and Five Moral Laws) have "dominated Korean sociopolitical life for much of the country's history and have influenced family systems as well as ways of thinking, philosophy and lifestyles."

The Sam-Kang-Oh-Ryun

  • The king is the mainstay of the state (Kun-Yi-Shin-Kang).
  • The father is mainstay of the son (Bu-Yi-Ja-Kang)
  • The husband is the mainstay of the wife (Bu-Yi-Bu-Kang)
  • Between father and son it requires chin (friendship)
  • Between king and courtier, eui (righteousness)
  • Between husband and wife, pyul (deference)
  • Between old and young, saw (degree)
  • Between friends, shin (faith)3

The Sam-Kang-Oh-Ryun embodies the vertical relationships, family-patriarchal/ conservatism, a reluctance to accept change, and family-centeredness. These characteristics have exerted strong influence on every field of life in Korean culture.

In certain times however, homosexual attitudes prevailed in Korea. For instance, during the Three Kingdoms period (57 CE – 668 CE) a group of military elites in the Silla kingdom (57 BCE – 935CE) who belonged to the Hwarang, or the Flower of Youth, offered the closest thing to homosexuality in ancient Korea.

Hwarang, in addition to their military functions, had a component for ecstasy and eroticism, known as hyangga. Hwarang has given rise to modern words such as hwallyangi, hwangangnom, and hwarangnyon meaning playboy, lazy good-fornothing, and prostitute.4 Homosexual feelings can also be found in Korean vernacular poetry of historical annals such as the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms.5

Ch'oyong's Song

Playing in the moonlight of the capital
Till the morning comes,
I return home
To see four legs in my bed.
Two belong to me.
Whose are the other two?
But what was my own
Has been taken from me, what now?6

These writings shed a new light on how Koreans perceive homosexuality. Clearly, these facts breach the heterosexual social and ethical norms in Korea. However, in the later Choson Dynasty, attitudes regarding homosexuality shift as it is seen as wicked by the neo-Confucian upper-middle classes.7

Korean Esprit de Corps

Korean society was hesitant to change: throughout the Choson Dynasty (1392 CE -1897), the upper-class frowned on homosexuality. However, there existed something close to homosexual affection as Korean values hold that there were many opportunities for men and women to develop social and non-sexual physical contact with members of the same sex both in their schooldays and afterwards. These values have long existed since the Choson Dynasty and continue to exist today. Kim and Hahn argue, "Koreans enjoy close emotional friendships with members of their own sex."8 This comes to my second point that this kind of esprit de corps was particularly stronger in the military, where Koreans had to work together to fight a great common threat--North Korea.

Beginning with the First Republic of South Korea (1948) under Syngman Rhee, authoritarian rulers alike have ruled South Korea with an iron fist. Vehement anti-communist rulers had no room for minority rights, and the esprit de corps that formed among Korean people were rigorous standards of what was normal in society and what would constitute military punishment. Youngshik D. Bong argues, Korean military government exploited and reproduced Confucian ideology in order to carry out military and industrial mobilization of the populace. Such mobilization, in turn, solidified the binary and hierarchical conceptualization of gender that regards homosexuality as a foreign and unKorean value.9,10

Neo-Confucianism views from the Choson Dynasty continued to resurface into Korean society through military regimes regarding homosexuality. Most Koreans today continue to see homosexuality as un-Korean and foreign. Under authoritarian control, President Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, both ex-military leaders, attempted to homogenize Korean society, and were against homosexuality. Bong writes that authoritarian regimes, such as the Park and Chun administrations, were responsible for preventing liberal political agendas and democratic ideals from spreading, in order to promote national solidarity and political stability. A prodemocracy movement was equated with an antigovernment movement.11

Chun Doo-hwan was a two-star general in the ROK Army and expanded martial law to the entire country, closing universities, banning political parties, and censoring the press. Under Chun, any people, including cultural or political dissidents would be arrested immediately by the police or the military and sent to the samchunggyoyookdae (三淸敎育隊). These were boot camps designed to provide rigorous military training and education to the arrested ‘troubled' youths.

Many Koreans died and some even committed suicide during these boot camps. Moreover, the Korean youth, many of whom were college students and professors, rose up against Chun's military style dictatorship in what is known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement (광주 민주화 운동).12 The army was sent out to suppress the demonstrators, which resulted in a bloody massacre. The blatant uses of violence by these rulers' commands would make it difficult for a Korean LGBT movement to start up, especially when universities, which tend to encourage generally safe and liberalminded environments, were targeted. However, this claim is invalid after the 1990s because even though the South Korean government was no longer authoritarian, many Koreans were still hesitant to come out as gay.

Gays in the Military

An alternate explanation for why gay men could not come out is conscription into the armed services. Every Korean soldier goes through psychological evaluation prior to joining the military. If the man shows he has homosexual tendencies, the man is labeled as "mentally handicapped", thus unfit to serve. Conscription for males puts psychological pressure among Korean gay men, because there is a social stigma attached to men who do not serve in the military. For example, an employer could discriminate based upon whether the male employee has served in the military. Soldiers that are suspected as ‘gay' are dishonorably discharged.

A ritual Confucian ceremony in Autumn in Jeju, South Korea

A ritual Confucian ceremony in Autumn in Jeju, South Korea

Unfamiliar Culture of "Coming Out"

Most Koreans were indoctrinated into thinking that the Korean LGBT community is a Western by-product, possibly the effect of close contact with the West after the Korean War. But the culture of "coming out" is a Western concept that has made little impact among Koreans.

As Bong mentioned, the Park and Chun administrations rather solidified Confucian socio-political ideologies, giving them a way to argue that homosexuality is an un-Korean foreign value. I argue that the reason "liberation" and "coming out" harms the person "coming out" is because: 1) "coming out" is an individually based experience, 2) rejection from the family or society reinforces the unKorean value, and, in turn, 3) this rejection spreads more ignorance about homosexuality.

As I argued earlier, homosexuality is a taboo subject because it disrupts social harmony by breaking the family continuum according to Confucianism. Previously, military governments have exploited and reproduced Korean values to mobilize the Korean populace. However, when coming out as gay is not familiarized, homosexuality is rejected by Korean society. This makes homosexuality seemingly unKorean and foreign to most people and results only in ignorance about homosexuality and myths about gay men and women, ultimately harming the gay man or woman trying to "come out".

One of the first myths that emerged in the early 1990s among Koreans regarding homosexuality was that "AIDS is the plague of homosexuals."13

Thriving Gay Subculture

A lack of institutions and unfamiliarity towards homosexuality caused the rise of a gay subculture that is largely unknown in mainstream Korean society. Despite the difficulty of ‘coming out' to families, there is a way for Korean gay men to interact and seek other gay men through the Internet. A burgeoning online gay community has thus far fulfilled the needs of the LGBT community through chat rooms, dating sites, and other social outlets, including contract marriages, which I will discuss in detail later. (discussed later).

In fact, ‘netizens', or Internet citizens, play the largest role in the LGBT community in Korea. Korean LGBT information is online, and not having to reveal your identity makes the online community a safe place to explore and discover what it means to be a gay Korean, as well as where to find other gay men in Korea.

Websites such as Ivancity© provide gay men in Korea with, what the website advertises as a: "gay portal, gay TV, video, gay news, power dating, Myspace, text chat, video chat, file sharing, gay clubs, and shopping malls."14 All this information can be incredibly helpful for newly gay men in a society where they feel uncomfortable "coming out."

Homosexuality is a taboo subject because it disrupts social harmony

Gay friendly cities such as Itaewon ( 이태원), which is the home to many U.S. Military Personnel, tourists, and non-Koreans, is colloquially referred to as "homo hill." There are popular gay destinations in Korea for natives and tourists alike to explore the gay nightlife. These are new and potential ways Korean LGBT is branching out visibly in society.

Contract Marriages

One of the many ways Korean LGBT is unique to LGBT culture is through its contract marriages. The difficulty of "coming out" in Korean culture has led to an alternative arrangement of "contract marriages." John (Song Pae) Cho, in "The Wedding Banquet Revisited: "Contract Marriages" Between Korean Gays and Lesbians" admits being gay is a family problem.15

As Korean gays and lesbians try to reconcile their personal desires and the pressure to marry from the family, they enter a contract marriage in Korean known as, kyeyak kyôlhon (계약결혼). This idea is radically different from the Western liberal idea of choosing our own alternative families, implicit in works such as Families We Choose (1997) by Kath Weston.16 By deflecting

marriage, the partners entering a contract marriage only conform to marriage and they fall into a spider web of obligations.17 These obligations are very demanding when parent-inlaws visit the home of the couple unexpectedly, and the couple must attend all family functions, such as birthdays, funerals, holidays, and any rituals the family observes.

Cho writes, "As Suh Dong Jin, a former Korean gay activist, asserts, one of the key characteristics of Korean gays and lesbians is their close emotional bond with their families."18 Contract marriages end up reinforcing the sanctity of marriage of the family as the proper unit of social, moral, and national belonging.19 Websites such as "Our Wedding" is devoted to such arrangements.20

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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»
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In October 1950, Chinese troops under the name of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPV) crossed the Yalu River to assist North Korean armies, and engaged in the Korean War in an offensive manner after the U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel. One central question immediately arises with regard to the Chinese intervention... MORE»
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