The jockeying for the moral high ground has started in Korea all over again – as if it ever stopped.
In the aftermath of the convincing electoral victory by the Democratic Party (DP) in the National Assembly elections in April, the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), one of South Korea’s main non-Catholic ecumenical groups, called on the incoming National Assembly to pass an anti-discrimination law which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a standing policy of the NCCK, in line with its approach to sexual and gender minority persons in recent history. There have been several attempts to pass such an ordinance in the National Assembly and assorted municipalities. While some municipal laws have passed successfully, others have not, or have been rescinded after they have been passed, and attempts at the National Assembly level have repeatedly been stymied by conservative politicians, often working in concert with conservative Christian forces (CCFs).
It’s fair to say that the most frustrating aspect of this ongoing conflict has been the confusing stances taken by Moon Jae-In, the president elected after the removal of Park Geun-hye from office. He was known for his work as a human rights lawyer before entering politics. However, he is also Roman Catholic, and when pushed by an opposing candidate in the 2017 presidential debate, he had to declare (in my view, almost sheepishly) his opposition to homosexuality. He has had to, at times, seek the support of CCFs in Korea on various issues. Last autumn, he tried to tread a fine line with reigious leaders when he said that enacting marriage equality into law could not be done without ‘social consensus’, but that discrimination against sexual and gender minorities simply should not be condoned.
Now that the party of which he is a member appears to have a 60% majority (180 out a total 300 seats) in the upcoming National Assembly, they have the technical ability to pass laws without seeking consensus with the conservative minority, now represented almost exclusively by the United Future Party (UFP).
This could include, potentially, an ordinance which guarantees equality before the law as defined in the Constitution to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The CCFs in Korea are far from done, though. On April 22nd, several para-church organizations protested and condemned this, likening the NCCK’s stance on an anti-discrimination law as being ‘no different from the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.
I guess if you’re going to vent your sense of betrayal, you might as well invoke the ultimate example of betrayal in the Gospels, eh?
If we examine recent polling and census numbers, though, it seems to me that the CCFs of South Korea should make their complaint to Korean society in general, and with younger generations specifically.
Throughout its history, close to half the population of South Korea (the Republic, post World War II) has had no religious affiliation. After significant growth in Catholic and Protestant groups throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the proportion of people claiming no religious affiliation jumped by 10% between 2005 and 2015. Among age groups, all groups under 50 years old showed over 50% of Korean residents claiming no religion.
These numbers are generally confirmed by polling done through the KCC in 2017. An even more significant finding was found in a sub-poll of 1,000 non-Protestants, where it was found that less than 1 in 10 of respondents (9.5%) had a favorable impression of Protestant Christians. Among the reasons cited for this dislike, selfishness, a materialistic orientation, and an authoritarian streak were given often.
Could this mean that Protestants just – aren’t – liked – in South Korean society? Given that conservative Protestants seem to be the most vocal groups in the media and social discourse, could they be feeding the very dislike they’re experiencing?
In terms of perceptions of sexual and gender minority (SGM) persons in South Korea, there is a truly clear generational gap. In recent polling, it has been shown that acceptance of SGM persons is higher among younger generations. There has been increasing acceptance of marriage equality, and one poll has shown that as many as 80-90% of Koreans are opposed to discrimination against SGM persons in employment.
This is not to say that the Democratic Party is a paragon of progressive virtue. In fact, the chance to gain the cooperation of the Green Party in the recent elections was ruined when the President of the DP made anti-SGM remarks at a press conference. There are socially conservative lawmakers within the DP, and there’s no guarantee that all lawmakers would obey a three-line whip, so the support of minority and parties like the Justice Party will be needed.
Even having noted these factors, it seems to me the incoming, DP-led National Assembly has an opportunity to at least take a first step in clarifying the status of rights for SGM persons. An anti-discrimination law ensuring employment and housing rights for all citizens, and clearly identifying sexual orientation and gender identity as being included in this legislation, has a good chance of gaining broad support and passing.
Is the language of betrayal appropriate here? The NCCK’s standing policy concerning non-discrimination is a faithfully discerned policy, based in what it means to follow in the way of Jesus in this nation, in this age – how is this a betrayal of Christian norms? CCFs in South Korea have only recently had enough monetary and political power to influence social issues in this nation, and it seems as though they’re losing it again, due to a combination of increasing secularization and their own self-inflicted wounds. If CCFs want to bandy about terms like ‘betrayal’, they’ll need to apply it not only to liberal Christian organizations but to the younger generations of South Koreans for not dutifully following their direction. Something tells me that would only alienate younger people from the church more so than they may be today.
It is not an easy thing to follow the dictates of your conscience when those views become less commonly held. To insist on those views being enshrined in law, and to brand those who do not hold your view as turncoats and betrayers, is show a sense of entitlement. It seems to me that, to make the charge of betrayal stuck, the CCFs in this South Korea will have to accuse not just the NCCK, but more and more, the entire society. Are they willing to do this and risk alienating themselves further in Korean society?
It seems to me that the conservative Christian forces of South Korea need to sit down and have a good think about their entrenched positions on sexual/gender minority people in their midst. Otherwise, they will either turn society against them even more, or they will have to engage in some kind of political power play to construct some kind of theo-oligarchy, and something tells me that South Korean society, especially younger generations, won’t have much time for that.
 Min, C (2020, April 16) S. Korea’s Ruling Party Clinches Landslide Win In Parliamentary Elections. In TBS eFM News [online]. Accessed 18 April at http://tbs.seoul.kr/eFm/newsView.do?typ_800=N&idx_800=2391336&seq_800=.
 Park, J W (2020, 27/29 January) Protestant church group’s unwavering support for gay rights. In The Korea Times [online]. Accessed 1 May 2020 at https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/01/703_282505.html.
 Associated Press (2017, 26 April) South Korean presidential front runner Moon Jae-in says he opposes homosexuality. In South China Morning Post [online]. Accessed 30 April 2017 at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2090815/south-korean-presidential-front-runner-moon-jae-says-he-opposes.
 Shim, E (2019, 21 October) Moon Jae-in: Anti-LGBT discrimination not acceptable in South Korea. In UPI [online]. Accessed 10 April 2020 at https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/10/21/Moon-Jae-in-Anti-LGBT-discrimination-not-acceptable-in-South-Korea/1041571673042/.
 NB – even though there are regional and factional rivalries within major political parties, and they often change names like the average person changes their socks(!), the conservative-liberal divide is reasonably clear in South Korean politics.
 지유석(lukewycliff) (2020, 22 April) 보수 개신교 단체, ‘NCCK’ 규탄 기습 시위… 그 이유는? (Conservative Protestant group protests against, condemns ‘NCCK’ … Why?). In OhMy News [online].
 Kim H S (2017, 28 December). “종교인구 비율 46%로 하락…20대는 30%” (“The ratio of religious people in the population ratio fell to 46%… 30% among people in their 20s”). In Yonhap News Agency [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20171228175500005.
 Pew Research Center (2013/2014). The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.
 Ock, H J (2017, 8 June) 6 in 10 Koreans oppose same-sex marriage. In The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 10 June 2017 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170608000827.
 Nam, S Y (2020, 22 March) 녹색당, 비례연합정당 합류 제안에 “참여 않는다” 재확인 (Green Party Reaffirms “Not to Participate” in Proposal to Join Proportional Political Party). In 민종의 소리 (The Voice of the People) [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.vop.co.kr/A00001476701.html
 A tradition in parliamentary procedure which says that all members of a political party – leaders, ministers, and regular representatives – are required to vote in favor of a government law or motion.