Being gay in North Korea: finding insightful information about LGBT life in this closeted country is like trying to find water on Mars. This overview by a British writer suggests, among other things, that the only North Koreans who know about homosexuality are ones who escape into South Korea where gay life is more known.
Memories of an Escapee
Ji Min, like nearly all other young North Korean men, took part in regular compulsory military training. Once a year, professionals from the cities such as him were drafted and sent off to do military service for about two weeks.
Working with Ji Min was another young man of marriageable age, who the army had given the task of distributing food, rations and other necessities to the soldiers – a job which could make one quite popular with your fellow soldiers. Furthermore, on the job they were exposed to many unmarried girls, and “some of them were really pretty,” Ji Min recalled.
(photo right: border guards)
But Ji Min’s friend was not interested in the girls – he was more interested in Ji Min. “He always treated me so nicely,” said Ji Min, who defected from the DPRK in 2005. “I was (very) favored by his effort to get me out of hard training or to give me delicious food. I am wondering why he really did so to me when he ignored all those girls who tried hard to get his attention.”
Western readers may not be so perplexed – it’s possible Ji Min was the subject of a homosexual crush.
Homosexuality in the DPRK is one of the most mysterious things about this mysterious state – how is a subject, still something of a taboo even in the west, treated in one of the most authoritarian and conformist states in the world?
Ji Min’s confusion is not hard to believe: defectors routinely confess they had no exposure to homosexuality until they arrived in South Korea or USA where it is more widely known. While North Korea has no laws on the books to punish gay relationships, defectors routinely confess their blindness to such things.
Hazel Smith, a North Korea watcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that homosexuality as it is conceived of in the West simply does not exist conceptually in the North. “The way people think isn’t in that way,” she said. “Being gay is simply not recognized.”
But surprisingly, she said, intimate relationships do exist and are common; close same-sex relationships between young unmarried people in their 20s are normal. “It’s not conceived of as sex, it’s just physical affection–before marriage,” Smith told NK News. She also noted that it’s highly likely that same-sex relationships take place, just as in the West, in gender-segregated places such as the army or single-gender schools.
Communism has traditionally not been tolerant, with homosexuality often seen as a product of decadent capitalist materialism and immorality. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, for example, homosexuality was punished in gulags and Russia only made it legal with the fall of communism in 1993. In Cuba gay men have been treated especially badly, seen as deviant agents of foreign imperialism. This attitude has softened but gay people still live in fear there. (photo right: ‘Dear Leader’ image at military parade)
And unlike many other Communist states, North Korea places the family unit at the center of public life; it is the cornerstone of the North Korean revolution and crucial to the community. So even if a North Korean were to feel naturally gay, they still must marry a member of the opposite sex and procreate. Those who do not marry are doomed to forever be seen as a child.
North Korea remains a highly regimented and collectivist society, where the desires of individuals are usually treated as second to the needs of the nation. In the DPRK, Smith said, you are “divorced from thinking about what your individual aspirations for life are. Romantic love as a primary motivator of individuals is not really considered.”
Nevertheless, unlike other countries where homosexuality “does not exist” such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, no laws exist explicitly prohibiting homosexuality. The constitution of the DPRK says “citizens enjoy equal rights in all spheres of State and public activities”.
The Korean Friendship Association, the leading international organization promoting North Korea, insists that even more liberal treatment takes place, claiming that ”the DPRK recognizes that many individuals are born with homosexuality as a genetic trait and treats them with due respect…Homosexuals in the DPRK have never been subject to repression, as in many capitalist regimes around the world.”
(photo left: South Korean gay friends)
While this may be technically true, North Korean propaganda has referred to homosexuality as something foreign and un-Korean, a product of western imperialism and vice. “I have quite often come across references to homosexuality as a typical form of Western/Yankee decadence,” said B.R. Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda and author of the bestselling book ‘The Cleanest Race’.
“Homosexuality is often portrayed as a form of imperialist humiliation” He points to a particular scene in the 2000 North Korean short story ‘Snowstorm in Pyongyang’ (평양에서 눈보라, published 2000), about the capturing of the USS Pueblo in 1968. In one imaginary scene, the captured American sailors beg their North Korean captors to allow them to engage in gay sex. The North Korean soldier who guards them issues a harsh rebuke: “This is the territory of our republic, where people enjoy lives befitting human beings. On this soil none of that sort of activity will be tolerated.”
A cursory look through KCNA archives brings up little mention of homosexuality in the DPRK; any mentions of it are devoted to criticizing either the United States or Japanese imperialism. Homosexuality is often portrayed as a form of imperialist humiliation –in the same category as the sexual enslavement of Korean women during the Japanese occupation.
Gay Tourists in DPRK
So what of gay men who visit the DPRK as tourists? Simon Cockerell, who runs North Korea travel service Koryo Tours, says he frequently takes gay western tourists to North Korea, and the responses are often surprising. “When (North Koreans) meet gay tourists (of which there are many) they often think it is quite funny,” he said, “a little bit of a playground attitude, basically.
I wouldn’t say I have seen much in the way of homophobia from any North Koreans. After all, you may hate that which you don’t understand, but its hard to be anti-something that you have no real conception of at all.” (photo right: tour guide)
“North Korea is attractive as a gay tourist destination” Cockerell said North Korea is “attractive as a gay tourist destination for the militarism, the kitsch, the innocence too,” he said. “The complete unawareness people have of homosexuality combines with the East Asian touchy-feely-ness of men holding hands, singing, being openly emotional…making it seem very, very safe indeed.”
A gay tourist who has visited the DPRK several times who chose to remain anonymous, told NK News that during his last visit he had been escorted around the country by two very different tour guides. One, a girl from an elite Pyongyang family, exhibited an awareness of homosexuality and the other, a male who had never left the country, seemed unaware of it even as an idea.
When the tour concluded the source noted that: “the female guide even said something approving of the couple being together, and how nice it was that they had decided to be ‘best friends’ for life”. Not a remarkably progressive statement, certainly, but in a country where homosexuality seems to barely be recognized, this tour guide’s acceptance of a gay couple is certainly noticeable.
Conservative Korean Culture
Korean culture in general is traditionally conservative and any displays of open sexuality are frowned upon. Director of Research & Strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) Sokeel Park told NK News that “LGBT rights in North Korea is a bit like LGBT rights on the moon (unless perhaps if one looks underground),” and compares North Korean attitudes toward homosexuality to those of South Korea in the past.
“Defectors that I’ve spoken with about this have universally expressed great surprise at learning that some people in South Korea and elsewhere are attracted to people of the same sex,” he said, “much in the same way that my own father – who left South Korea in the late 1960s – was shocked to learn about such a thing as homosexuality in the west.”
A 2013 poll of South Korean citizens revealed that only 39 percent believe homosexuality should be accepted by society and only 29 percent supported allowing gay marriage– a low statistic but light years ahead of the North. Park said that “overall North Korea is about where South Korea was 50 years ago on this,” so it will certainly take time for North Korea to catch up.
(Photo right of defector student Kim Seong-cheol; see his story.)
Story by Oliver Hotham
November 13, 2013
(Also see comments that follow this story. )
About the author:
Oliver Hotham is an NK News contributor based in London. He has previously worked at the Sunday Times and politics.co.uk.