NORTH KOREA: SPECTER OF SEXUALITY

VALERIA GURROLA WRITES — Jang Yeong-jin has found love as a gay man nearly twenty-five years after his escape from North Korea.

He first made international headlines in 2015 with A Mark of Red Honor’s release, his memoir about living as an openly gay defector in South Korea. In the memoir, Jang Yeong-jin recounts the aching feeling of not responding to his wife or wanting to bear children, a feeling he mistook for not loving his country.

Overwhelmed with this feeling, Jang Yeong-jin knew he had to escape, so he fled to South Korea in 1997. He would later realize he was gay after learning about homosexuality, which helped him understand his situation. Growing up, Jang Yeong-jin was unaware of his sexuality but repeatedly sought medical attention to understand why he found women unattractive.

It is not that he was unable to love his wife; he liked men but was incapable of expressing that since no one was openly gay in North Korea.

Jang Yeong-jin’s story raises troubling concerns about gay rights in North Korea. According to him, the concept of homosexuality is nonexistent there-meaning, homosexuality simply does not exist. Without knowledge of the concept of homosexuality, some people are conditioned to uphold societal norms without the chance to explore their feelings and embrace their true identities.

Same-sex relationships are supposedly legal in North Korea, but the country has no explicit law that protects the LGBTQIA+ community from discrimination. Same-sex relationships are punishable only if they involve affairs or breach societal standards. People caught in same-sex relationships are shunned for immoral behavior and for practicing capitalism by being in a gay relationship, according to the author.

Jang Yeong-jin is breaking the stigma on gay issues by speaking on his experience living in North Korea. This March, he announced his engagement to his partner of one year (after finding himself stuck in the US when the pandemic began last March). He now has the chance to be authentically himself-a privilege many like him may not soon experience.

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