Seemingly unbridled by the growing tensions between South Korea and North Korea, the LGBT+ community of Busan, South Korea, the country’s second most populous city, is geared up to celebrate its first Pride Festival this weekend. The festival and parade will be held Saturday, Sep. 23, on Haeundae Beach, the largest beach in the country. About 40 LGBT+ and other civic groups are expected to attend.
While homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, LGBT+ rights remain politically and socially unpopular. In addition to calling homosexuality a sin, some call LGBT+ people a derogatory term that translates to “pro-North Korean gays.”
Religious South Koreans have been a disruptive fixture at the annual Korea Queer Culture Festival for 18 years, holding an anti-homosexuality rally while trying to physically block the parade. Their presence is the most visible display of intolerance toward sexual minorities in the tradition-bound society, where religious belief is widespread and many homosexuals stay in the closet due to fear of discrimination and social isolation.
The religious right also frequently claims that gay men weaken the military and make the nation vulnerable to North Korean attacks. Yet, military service is compulsory for all South Korean men.
A military penal code put in place in the 1960s bans homosexual activity under Article 92-6 of South Korea’s Military Criminal Act “to keep the military community sound.” The law regards same-sex relations between soldiers as “disgraceful conduct,” akin to sexual assault. Under the act, a person convicted of sodomy or other “disgraceful conduct” could face up to two years in prison.
In June a “witch hunt” went after gay soldiers in active duty. Lim Tae-hoon, an activist with the Military Human Rights Center for Korea, told CNN that the military had been using gay dating apps to try and track down homosexual soldiers.
One soldier said his phone was taken and its contents copied; he claimed investigators insinuated his unit would find out about his sexuality if he refused to hand the phone over. “The atmosphere was very oppressive and humiliating,” he said. “I was scared.”
At least 32 soldiers were charged with homosexual activity in the “hunt.”
Additionally, while having been criticized by LGBT+ groups during a pre-election debate in which now President Moon Jae-in said he was “opposed” to homosexuality, he backtracked days later saying it was “still a little early to allow homosexuality within the military” on the ground that South Korean society was not ready for it.
A ray of light shone down on gay soldiers on Aug. 4 when it was reported that a plan to review the treatment of gay soldiers serving in the military was in the works. That ray of light quickly twinkled out when The Korea Times reported that the government’s so-called human rights report that will be submitted to the United Nations states, “We are reviewing the law so it will make the rules clearer for gay soldiers,” adding that not all gay soldiers will be punished for homosexual activity. Yet, it defended the law’s fundamental purpose: “In a given circumstance where only men stay together, the law is necessary to keep order. Punishment of gay soldiers also serves this purpose.”
Gay rights activists say that some progress has been made in recent years, with surveys showing increasing tolerance, particularly among young people, and participation at the KQCF, surging since the first in 2000 when only 50 attended. The surge this year included The National Human Rights Commission of Korea, a state rights watchdog, and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism — the country’s biggest Buddhist sect.
“Buddha has taught us everyone, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, can attain perfect enlightenment. Sexual minorities must not be indiscriminated against”, said Hyo Rok, a senior nun and professor at the Seoul University of Buddhism.
But the KQCF’s growing profile has unnerved South Korea’s conservative Protestant church groups, which have millions of followers, enormous political lobbying power, and see homosexuality as a psychological illness to be “healed.”
Snippets of South Korean efforts made in September to stoke North Korea’s intensifying aggression:
Sept. 2 — U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to continue to apply strong diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea. The two leaders spoke by phone on Friday and also agreed on revising a bilateral missile treaty. The treaty currently caps the development of South Korea’s ballistic missiles to a range of 800 km and a payload weight of 500 kg.
Sept. 3 — South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in vowed to push for the most powerful sanctions yet at the UN Security Council against North Korea to completely isolate it.
Sept. 4 — South Korea carried out a missile drill meant to “strongly warn” North Korea over its 6th nuclear test. The military added that the target of the exercise was set considering the distance to where the North’s test site was and the drill was aimed at practicing precision strikes and cutting off reinforcements. The drill was carried out by only the Korean military, but more are being prepared with the U.S. forces in South Korea.
Sept. 5 — South Korea’s navy conducted a live-fire exercise in waters off the country’s eastern coast as Seoul continued its displays of military capability following North Korea’s latest nuclear test. Seoul’s defense ministry said that warships participated in drills aimed at retaliating against potential North Korean provocations.
Sept. 12 — South Korea welcomed the UN Security Council’s move to impose new sanctions on its neighbor North Korea, describing it as a “strict warning from the international community.” The country’s foreign ministry said in a statement that South Korea will continue to strengthen cooperation with the international community to ensure that the resolutions “are thoroughly implemented.” “North Korea should accept the strict warning from the international community that continued provocations only deepen the diplomatic isolation and economic pressure,” the ministry said.
With extreme military threats of late looming over North Korea, Japan, South Korea and the United States (garnering the most presumptuous threats), it seems the LGBT+ communities of the world’s nations will not go unheard.