‘We’re An Issue!’

That doesn’t sound like very much of a positive statement for the LGBT+ community, does it?

Being ‘an issue’ sounds more like being ‘an inconvenience’, ‘a disturbance’, or ‘a pain in the ass’.

However, with the impeachment of Park Geun-hye for being in cahoots with Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a pastor/religious huckster who held great sway over the ex-president in the aftermath of her mother’s death at the hands of an assassin who was actually aiming for her father[1], there has been a sea change in Korean politics. The momentum of the impeachment movement, with its peaceful and non-violent yet resolute and firm call for change, has resulted in the election of a former human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in, a leading figure in the ‘Minjoo Party’ (a better translation of their Korean name might be ‘The Party for Greater Democracy’), as the new President[2]. He has already made changes which could be termed as being ‘a breath of fresh air’ in Korean society. He has eagerly joined in the singing of songs from the 1980s protest era of Korea[3]; he is taking measures to encourage people to take their full rights to vacation time[4], and is continuing the fight to reduce the maximum hours that people can be forced to work under the law[5]; he is turning off coal-fired power plants to improve air quality in this nation[6]; he is exploring ways to re-start positive relations with North Korea, even in these tense, unpredictable times[7]. I’ve been in this continent a long time, and I sense something similar to the shift in attitudes which emerged when Kim Dae-jung was elected President of this country some twenty years ago.

Something else has happened, too. For the first time in recent Korean political history, the human rights of sexual minorities has become an issue that is being seriously talked about. Mind you, the way it occurred isn’t really that inspiring. It happened during the fourth presidential debate on national television[8]. The candidate of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, Hong Jun-pyo, raised the question directly to candidate Moon during the debate, basically asking, ‘Do you approve of or oppose homosexuality?’ Moon’s initial answer was along the lines of ‘I oppose it, personally, but I don’t think they should be discriminated against.’ The didn’t satisfy candidate Hong, who pressed Moon again with the same basic question, to which Moon replied, ‘I oppose it.’

Fortunately, it wasn’t left there. Candidate Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party jumped in and advocated strongly for the full implementation of a non-discrimination law which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, saying ‘Homosexuality is not something you approve or disapprove of. It’s a person’s identity…I believe human rights and freedoms of sexual minorities should be respected.’[9] This was to be expected, fortunately, as the Justice Party is a truly progressive political party, albeit a minority one, in the Republic of Korea. Hong Jun-pyo of Liberty Korea (one of the party fragments left over in the wake of  Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and the collapse of the conservative coalition) has come out very strongly against including LGBT+ persons in any non-discrimination law. In fact, he has been downright reactionary, saying that homosexuals are responsible for the spread of AIDS – absolute nonsense![10] He would, no doubt, be pleased with the sentence passed against a captain in the ROK Army, and with the witch hunt being carried out by the Chief of Staff of the ROK Army! (Homosexual behavior is still a punishable offense in the Military Code of Justice here)[11]

However, many were disappointed in the apparent stance taken by candidate, now President, Moon. There are a series of mixed signals which people are rightly confused by in this case. As a member of the liberal camp in Korea, he has been part of the struggle to increase human rights in this country. Nonetheless, he is also a Roman Catholic, through which he may have felt some pressure to declare his personal opposition to homosexuality. He was also asked the direct question in the debate twice – he had the opportunity to declare a nuanced position, but he almost seemed to meekly say, ‘I oppose it’.

This has disappointed and angered many in the LGBT+ community in South Korea. This anger led to direct protest against Mr Moon by LGBT activists while he was campaigning at the National Assembly (see refrences above). The activists were arrested for protesting on the grounds of the National Assembly, but their point was made. And with this, after occasional bits of attention, the LGBT+ communities have become a ‘live’ political issue in South Korea.

This feels different from past times, when attempts were made to include the LGBT+ community in anti-discrimination laws, or when sex education became a ‘hot topic’. It seems that now, South Korean society has come to realize that LGBT+ groups in South Korea are ‘here’, and they’re not going to ‘go away’. The question on all sides is: how will we react to this ‘new normal’? I have heard rumblings in the LGBT+ communities of Korea – many spoke resolutely that they did not vote for him, and would continue to take an adversarial stance toward the sitting government. In fact, the theme for this year’s Korea Queer Culture Festival (our Pride festival and parade) is ‘There Is No Tomorrow – We Demand Our Rights Now!’ Yes, pretty adversarial.

Now, I understand why people are upset. President Moon had a chance to clarify his stance on LGBT+ issues, and had a chance to take a very clear anti-discrimination stance – but he didn’t. He also decided to attend a forum in March sponsored by a conservative Christian organization in which he made a clear statement against marriage equality (mind, so did the others, with the exception of Sim Sang-Jung)[12]. These are not good signs. He showed a clear proclivity in the presidential campaign to make statements on controversial issues that would ‘get him elected’. Now, this is perhaps an occupational hazard for all politicians, but even is he does harbor some sentiments which are favorable to the LGBT+ community, President Moon has painted himself in a corner that he’ll probably find very difficult to get out of. The sexual minorities of this country have every right and responsibility to call the new President out on this and ask him, ‘Is the CCF minority, as vocal and well-heeled as it is, a minority you want to associate yourself with?’ He needs to be reminded of his past as a campaigner for human rights, and he needs to be pressured to not turn his back on his legacy.

But…I’ve got some questions for the LGBT+ community and its allies, as well.

Would we feel better with a social conservative president, like Hong Jun-Pyo, in the presidency? Mr Hong has been wearing his ignorance on HIV/AIDS and his homophobia on his sleeve. Would we feel better with someone like this in the presidency? If a reader honestly feels this way, by all means, respond and comment – to adapt the words of the Bard, ‘They who know better how to tame a shrew, so let them speak. ‘Tis charity to show!’[13]

Yes, it would be crystal clear who our adversary was. It would also be crystal clear that the LGBT+ community would be in for more years of repression, obstruction, and stonewalling in its efforts to gain legal recognition. Is that the situation we’d prefer? At least now, we have someone who is at least open to a more progressive stance on human rights – isn’t this a preferable situation to be in?

To add to this, there is a shift happening in Korean thinking, if the latest poll numbers are to be believed. A recent poll conducted here in Korea pointed to at least one possible trend. Yes, it showed the majority of the population appear to still stand against marriage equality[14]; that this trend clearly shows a generational gap between those under 40 and those over; and that Koreans still seem to be hung up on the idea that homosexuality is due to psycho-social factors (*shakes head in disbelief).

Nonetheless, a resounding majority – eighty to ninety percent(!) – of the people surveyed clearly indicated that they do not believe gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against in employment. This is a significant shift in thinking. This is an opportunity for sexual minorities in this country to make headway in securing their rights. This is an opportunity for them to remind President Moon of his human rights pedigree, and to let him know that he now has the chance to build on that legacy. Again, I understand that there is impatience and distrust in this community and its allies, but as with the struggle in the West, there will be a need for direct action and protest, AS WELL AS for calm, disciplined dialogue with the President and other political leaders.

Yes, there is still a battle for rights which needs to be waged. However, there are signs that an opportunity exists to make gains among both the political leadership and the population in general. Although, as a foreigner, I’m on ‘the outside looking in’, I will support this ongoing battle in any way I can. I simply hope that the LGBT+ community will not rely only on demonstrations and marches, but also on dialogue and engagement. There seems to be a crack in the door towards dialogue – let’s open it further. We now have the opportunity to be more than ‘an issue’!

[1] McCurry, J (2017, 10 Mar), Park Geun-hye: South Korean court removes president over scandal. The Guardian [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/10/south-korea-president-park-geun-hye-constitutional-court-impeachment.

[2] Lee, S Y, (2017, 10 May), In landslide victory, Moon Jae-in elected president. the hankyoreh [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 ffrom http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/794136.html.

[3] Kim, C (2017, 18 May) South Korea’s Moon joins protest song at commemoration in nod to liberal values. Reuters [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-politics-liberals-idUSKCN18E0BZ.

[4] Choi, H Y (2017, May 23) Moon’s day-off sends out message: Work Less, Play More. The Korea Times [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/common/vpage-pt.asp?categorycode=356&newsidx=229792.

[5] Eom, D S (2017, May 10) At a glance: Moon’s pump-priming, labor reform, anti-corruption plans. The Korea Times [online], Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://m.koreatimes.co.kr/pad/news/view.jsp?req_newsidx=229022.

[6] Kim, D S (2017, 15 May) Moon Jae-in orders shutdown of old coal-fired power plants. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170515000815.

[7] Hincks, J (2017, 17 May). South Korea’s New President Moon Jae-in Is Sending Envoys to the Main Players in the North Korea Crisis. Time [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://time.com/4780140/moon-jae-in-south-korea-envoys/.

[8] The Associated Press. (2017, 26 April). South Korea’s presidential frontrunner angers LGBT activists in televised debate. In ABC: ABC News [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-26/south-koreas-presidential-frontrunner-angers-lgbt-activists/8474332.

[9] Ock, H J (2017, May 8). [Election 2017] Gay rights neglected on Korea campaign trail. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170426000830.

[10] Eom, D S, Park S S (2017, 26 April). Homosexuality = AIDS? Conservative candidate blasted for ‘hate speech’ against homosexuals. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/04/356_228350.html.

[11] Choe, S H (2017, 26 April). South Korea Military Is Accused of Cracking Down on Gay Soldiers. The New York Times [online]. Retrieved 10 June 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/world/asia/south-korea-mlitary-anti-gay-campaign.html?_r=0.

[12] Park, S J (2017, 24 Apr), Presidential candidates evasive on issue of LGBT rights. The hankyoreh [online]. Retrieved 13 June 2017 from http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/791990.html.

[13] Adapted from Shakespeare, W, The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, scene i.

[14] Ock, H J (2017, 8 June) 6 in 10 Koreans oppose same-sex marriage. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieved 13 June 2017 from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170608000827.