An Open Letter to Kim Hyun-woong, Minister of Justice, Government of the Republic of Korea

Dear Sir,

I write to you as a long-term resident of the Republic of Korea, having spent over 10 of my 18 years abroad in this country. I am married to a Korean national and I work here; I have invested my time, energy, and personal income into this country, and I have seen remarkable change take place as South Korea has developed.

I write to you, as well, as a Christian, as a layperson who serves as a co-Pastor of a church community which welcomes and affirms members of the sexual minorities communities as members of God’s family.

I have noted, and wish to express concerns about, comments that you made during your confirmation hearings at the National Assembly. In particular, I am concerned about comments which appear to show an attitude of prejudice against sexual minorities in this country[1]. In these comments:

  • You stated your opposition to same-sex marriage; and
  • You stated your willingness to consider restrictions on freedom of expression at events such as the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) if they went against ‘public safety’ and ‘social norms’

I realize that, as a non-citizen of the Republic of Korea, some may believe I have no business addressing these issues at all. However, I am a person who cares about human rights and equality, and my primary inspiration for this concern is rooted in the vision of distributive justice for all people, as found in the First Covenant with Israel, and as demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, whom I recognize as Messiah. I believe this distributive justice is the right of all people, especially of the members of sexual minorities whom I minister to. For these reasons, I believe it’s important for me to share my concerns with you.

I admit that the sources I read did not state on what basis you are opposed to same-sex marriage (I assume you would include in that marriage rights for other sexual minorities). However, it appears to me that in order to maintain your opposition to this, you have to maintain that a subset of the Korean citizenry does not have the same right to fair and equal treatment that other citizens have. I find it ironic that I, a non-citizen of Korea, have greater rights when it comes to marriage registry in this country than certain Korean citizens, just because my spouse happens to be a woman!

I notice with interest that the Constitution of the Republic of Korea states:

All citizens shall be equal before the la w, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of sex, religion, and social status.[2]

It also states:

Marriage and family life shall be entered into and sustained on the basis of individual dignity and equality of the sexes.[3]

In order to maintain your opposition to marriage equality, it appears that you have to maintain that sexual minorities do not have the right to equality before the law and to protection from discrimination. Moreover, it appears that you must assert that sexual minorities cannot muster the dignity and equality needed for marriage and family life. On what basis could you make those assertions?

I can only guess, but I suspect (please feel free to clarify if you feel the need) that it would be on similar grounds as the ones on which you would justify curtailing the freedom of expression of sexual minorities – for ‘public safety’ and ‘social norms’. Well, Minister Kim, whose definition of ‘social norms’ are you functioning with? To my knowledge, the only groups that have come out strongly against marriage equality and freedom of expression for sexual minorities are from within the conservative Protestant elements of the South Korean population. These people do not represent the largest group of Koreans, since (according to the 2005 census[4]) 46.5% of the Korean population does not profess a religion. They do not represent the majority of religious people, either, since there are more Buddhists than Protestants among the remainder of the population who do profess a religion (43.0% to 34.5%). In fact, the real surge in the Christian population of Korea has been among Catholics, not Protestants.

Moreover, among religious groups in South Korea, there is not one uniform view on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Let’s begin by examining Buddhism. Both the Jeoggye and Won Orders of Buddhism declared their support for the LGBT+ community at the KQCF Opening Ceremony in June. In fact, the Jeoggye Order recently held a ceremony marking its official support for the LGBT+ community, complete with chants and a teaching (I know this because I attended the ceremony as an ecumenical visitor).

Let’s move to Christian groups. To my knowledge, there was no evidence of representation from Catholic bodies among the groups of protestors at KQCF events. Even among non-Catholic Christian organizations, there are diverse views, for there are groups within the Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, and Baptist (yes, even Baptist!) confessions of faith which have expressed their support for the LGBT+ community. Members of these groups helped form the Human Chain against Hate and Discrimination at the main KQCF festival on June 28th. Moreover, there is now evidence of movement within mainline Christian denominations. For example, when the Rev. Dr. Lim Bora of the Seomdol Hyanglin Presbyterian Church reported on the KQCF to organizers for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, she noted there were many voices expressing the desire to support the LGBT+ community.

Based on this evidence, it would appear that those persons who are advocating against sexual minorities represent less than the entire Protestant population of South Korea, which itself represents less than one of every four South Koreans. Do you think it is appropriate for the government to consider the views of such a minority within the population as being normative for the entire society? Would it be wise for you to listen only to these voices when you make decisions on how freedom of expression should be regulated?

Again, I can only guess, but I suspect I can anticipate your reply to these questions – ‘recent polls still indicate the majority of Koreans hold negative attitudes toward homosexuality’. Yes, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, that is true, by approximately a 3-to-2 margin[5]. However, South Korea has experienced the highest degree of change in people’s views toward homosexuality – the percentage of people holding more favorable attitudes toward homosexuality has more than doubled in the last decade! It was also discovered that the strongest support for positive attitudes toward homosexuality is among South Koreans under 30 – the people who are emerging as this nation’s leaders and citizens. Even among those aged 30-49, attitudes toward homosexuality are split. Therefore, in order to say that ‘social norms’ require limitations on the expression of sexual minorities, you would need to, in effect, ignore the attitudes of the majority of South Koreans less than fifty years of age. Are you prepared to do that – to effectively say to these people, ‘Your views don’t count’?

The fact is, Minister Kim, attitudes are changing among the citizens of this country, especially from generation to generation, and within the religious communities in this country, toward sexual minorities. There are legal and political precedents, too. Politically, the Seoul Student Rights Ordinance, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity protection, was passed by Seoul Metropolitan Council in 2011[6]. Among legal rulings, in March 2013, Seoul Western District Court ruled that alteration of genitals by surgery was no longer required to change one’s identified gender[7]. In addition, the courts have been willing to grant protection in the form of refugee status to members of sexual minorities[8], overturning decisions made by the Ministry you now head. To add to these precedents, the Supreme Court ruled that a 19+ rating of a film dealing with issues faced by a gay couple as being too restrictive. I find the wording of the ruling very insightful into the mind of the court: ‘Considering homosexuality as a hazard, and thereby making restrictions, imposes serious limitations on the human rights, rights to purse happiness, and other rights of sexual minorities.’[9]

And of course, the attempts by Christian groups to have the KQCF Pride Parade banned were overturned by the Seoul Administrative Court, stating that the parade was not a threat to public security and could be restricted only after all other possible alternatives were considered.[10] At the festival and parade, the Seoul Metropolitan Police demonstrated that they were more than able to provide the staffing and security measures needed to ensure a smooth festival and parade.

My point in citing all this evidence is that there appears to be an increasing willingness among the citizenry of this country, South Korea, as well as political and legal precedents, to recognize that the guarantees to equal treatment and freedom from discrimination guaranteed in the Constitution should be granted to sexual minorities. Or, to borrow the words and sentiments of the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, there is evidence that the moral arc in this country – even this country – as with the rest of the universe, is bending towards justice. If you seek, in your actions as Minister of Justice for the Republic of Korea, to restrict the movements toward marriage equality and freedom for sexual minorities, you could be undertaking a very risky course of action. You may possibly be heeding the voices of a minority which seeks to inflict its understanding of divinity, humanity, and sexuality on a nation which does not necessarily share its views. This would put you in the unfortunate position of willfully ignoring, or worse yet, struggling against, the changing attitudes of this society. You would also be putting yourself at odds with an increasing body of political and legal opinion. You would, in effect, be attempting to refract that moral arc of the universe – in so doing, you would be distorting it. Is that a risk you’d be willing to take?

I pray that you consider seriously the concerns I have raised.

Peace be with you.

C Craig Bartlett

Co-Pastor, Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church, Seoul

[1] Jeong, H (2015, 7 July). Justice minister nominee opposes same-sex marriage. The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 9 July at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150707000867.

[2] Constitution of the Republic of Korea – Article 11, Section 1 (English translation). Accessed 13 July 2015 from http://www.ccourt.go.kr/home/att_file/download/Constitution_of_the_Republic_of_Korea.pdf.

[3] Constitution of the Republic of Korea – Article 34, Section 1 (English translation). Accessed 13 July 2015 from http://www.ccourt.go.kr/home/att_file/download/Constitution_of_the_Republic_of_Korea.pdf.

[4] I will be quoting the following census figures from Korean Broadcasting Corporation (2013) Religion. In KBS World Radio [online]. Accessed 13 July 2015 from http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/korea/korea_aboutreligion.htm.

[5] The statistics I quote in this paragraph come from the Pew Research Center (2013) The Global Divide on Homosexuality [online]. Accessed 14 July 2015 at http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2013/06/Pew-Global-Attitudes-Homosexuality-Report-FINAL-JUNE-4-2013.pdf.

[6] (2011, Decembcer 20). Seoul Student Rights Ordinance passes with sexual orientation, gender identity protections. In fridae: empowering LGBT Asia. Accessed 14 July 2015 at http://www.fridae.asia/gay-news/2011/12/20/11432.seoul-student-rights-ordinance-passes-with-sexual-orientation-gender-identity-protections?n=sec.

[7] Um, J W; Park, H J (2013, 16 Mar). Landmark legal ruling for South Korean transgenders. The hankyoreh [online]. Accessed 14 July at http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/578323.html.

[8] (2013, 1 May). South Korea: Court grants Ugandan lesbian refugee status after family killed due to her sexuality. Pink News [online]. Accessed 14 July 2015 at http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/05/01/south-korea-court-grants-ugandan-lesbian-refugee-status-after-family-killed-due-to-her-sexuality/.

[9] Rizov, V (2013, 14 November). South Korean Supreme Court strikes down restrictive rating on gay film. Dissolve [online]. Accessed 14 July 205 at https://thedissolve.com/news/920-after-four-years-south-korean-supreme-court-strike/.

[10] Hazzan, D (2015, 18 June). South Korean court lifts ban on gay pride parade in Seoul. DailyXtra [online]. Accessed 14 July 2015 at http://www.dailyxtra.com/world/news-and-ideas/news/south-korean-court-lifts-ban-gay-pride-parade-in-seoul-109527.

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5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Kim Hyun-woong, Minister of Justice, Government of the Republic of Korea

  1. Well done !! And if you can find translator who can translate in Korean. Kim Hyun Woong can understand and read quickly. It’s just my suggestion ^^

    Like

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