Two different forces are at play with regard to LGBT+ rights in South Korea. Unfortunately, these forces are reinforcing each other, thus making life much more difficult for many of the people to whom I minster.
The first force could clearly be seen in the aftermath of the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF), which was a resounding success (see ‘My First Pride’, July 1). A week and a half after 30,000+ came to Seoul City Plaza to celebrate Pride, the new Justice minister, at his confirmation hearings, clearly said that he opposed marriage equality, and had no qualms about trying to restrict LGBT+ events if they were in his words ‘harmful to “public safety” and “public norms”’.
Following that, it became apparent that both Samsung and Google have been censoring access to LGBT-friendly apps in their app stores.
Two weeks after this discovery was made public, Pinkmap, a resource showing gay-friendly businesses and establishments in Seoul, was removed by the Korea Communication Standards Commission (KCSC), the same group which blocks porn sites. The KCSC has not to date given a reason why this was necessary.
Come the fall, and things haven’t gotten any better. A new chairperson, Lee Sung-ho, was appointed to the Human Rights Commission. It is duly noted that in July 2015, while he was a candidate, he, as a judge told a transgender woman applying for a legal change of gender to give pictures of her genitalia to prove her transition – something which is NOT required under Korean law! On September 3, he met with the chair of the Christian Council of Korea and declared that, on LGBT+ issues, ‘I will work to make sure that the church in Korea has nothing to worry about’.
The Gender Ministry of the South Korean government, charged with implementing the Gender Equality Act – formerly the Women’s Development Act – has successfully pressured Daejeon City Council to remove LGBTI protections from its municipal gender equality ordinance. It has also stated that it is not responsible for ensuring LGBTI rights (that apparently, is the responsibility of the Human Rights Commission – see above, and good luck on that!), and that the public need to be convinced first before anti-discrimination laws can be enacted. The ministry has also refused to meet with LGBT+ representatives, apparently not liking the public moves by these activists to criticize their recent activities.
How are the churches dealing with this? Well, I’ve written about the activities of the so-called Christian Council of Korea (CCK) in this and previous entries. However, the ‘mainline’ Presbyterian denomination in South Korea, the Presbyterian Church of Korea, held its most recent General Assembly in September in Wonju (my wife’s hometown!). Included in this denomination is a group known as the Hyanglin Presbyterian Churches. This group has traditionally been active in following and implementing minjung theology, Korea’s equivalent to liberation theology. They’ve also been active in embracing LGBT+ inclusion and affirmation, particularly through the leadership of the Rev Dr Lim, Borah, who leads the Sumdol Hyanglin congregation in Seoul. I’ve spoken with her about what happened at General Assembly, and I’ve also followed (as best as I could) the Korean-language news coverage.
The end results were not encouraging. There was a motion put forward at General Assembly to draft guidelines for ministering to LGBT+ persons. In the end, only 78 of the 500+ commissioners there voted in favour of the motion. From what I’ve been able to figure out, the tone of the debate was very telling. It appears to have been, ‘We can’t be seen to be moving too fast!’ It seems as though they were worried about moving too far ahead of other churches in moving toward a genuine ministry to the LGBT+ communities in Korea.
As I’ve noted, I see these two developments as reinforcing each other. On one hand, government ministries and agencies are currently engaged in what I can only call a full frontal assault on any attempt to ensure the rights of LGBT+ persons. It is clear that they have no interest in trying to convince the public of anything, other than that they are only too willing to heed the calls of well-financed, well-heeled, well-connected, vocal minorities like the CCK. Do not be fooled – the CCK is a minority in this country. They don’t even represent the majority of religious people in Korea, since both the Cheoggye and Won Buddhist denominations came out as pro-LGBT this year.
At first, I thought this could easily be labelled as another manifestation of the NIMBY (‘Not In My Back Yard’) complex, but I took another look at what was being said. In these comments and many more, there was mention of ‘social norms’, consensus’, ‘persuading the majority’, and so forth. I’ve now concluded, after this re-examination, that a different acronym is more appropriate.
What I see here is the ‘OWEED’ complex – ‘Only When Everyone Else Does’. People and groups in this country hide behind the idea that only when the nation as a whole are feeling kindly disposed toward the LGBT+ communities here can certain privileges be granted to them. That’s what’s happening here. I’m beginning to think that this country does not really believe in universal human rights and freedoms. It seems as though ‘rights’ are in fact ‘privileges’ granted to the population, or to some subset thereof, by the ‘rulers’ of the nation or their authorized agents.
I don’t think I need to tell you about how that can basically grind progress to a halt. Unfortunately, this also negates a crucial element in the Judaeo-Christian tradition – the prophetic element. It seems to me this element, with a few exceptions, is sadly lacking in the South Korean Christian community. It is very much in the Christendom mode, enjoying its place of comfort and influence, doing its best to maintain that influence, and trying to counteract or silence any voice which goes against it.
The LGBT+ community in Korea is very much in prophetic mode, with many people who are willing to speak their truth to power. Some church communities in this country are in the prophetic mode. The Hyanglin Presbyterian churches certainly are, as is a group called Pilgrimage Anglican Church, and Catholic Priests for Social Justice – and, of course, our community at Open Doors tries its best to support the LGBT+ community in its efforts to speak their truth. Of course, we need more. We who try to be spiritual support communities for LGBT+ persons are definitely NOT prey to the OWEED complex. We know within ourselves that the call for the people of God in this time, in this place, is to stand with those who are on the margins, to speak out to those in authority, to not wait until everyone is kindly disposed toward ‘those people’ – if the oppressed did that, change would never occur, marginalized people would never be liberated, and society would stay in the control of traditional power brokers.
This will not be OUR way, for it is not what we understand the way of God in Christ to be. We say to the OWEED complex, ‘Be gone!’
‘For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV)
 Jeong H (2015, 7 July) Justice minister nominee opposes same-sex marriage, The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 9 July 2015 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150707000867.
 Condit, J (2015, 10 July) Samsung and Google censor LGBT apps in South Korea, engadget [online]. Accessed 14 October 2015 at http://www.engadget.com/2015/07/10/samsung-google-censor-lgbt-apps-south-korea/.
 Morgan, J (2015, 24 July) South Korea takes down gay venue map website over ‘moral values’, Gay Star News [online]. Accessed 14 October 2015 at http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/south-korea-takes-down-gay-venue-map-website-over-moral-values/.
 (2015, 3 September). New human rights commissioner has history of homophobia, The Kimchi Queen [online]. Accessed 15 October 2015 at http://thekimchiqueen.blogspot.kr/2015/09/korean-human-rights-commissioner-on.html. (NB – this article provides links to Korean-language news articles backing up the author’s assertions).
 Details in Lee, C (2015, 7-8 October) South Korea’s Gender Ministry blasted for denying LGBTI rights, The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 8 October 2015 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20151007001092.