LGBT rights in South Korea

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LGBT rights in South Korea
South Korea
South Korea
Same-sex sexual activity legal? Legal
(except for military)
Gender identity/expression Transsexual persons allowed to change legal gender
Recognition of
No recognition of same-sex couples
Military service Homosexuality not condoned by military. All males citizens are conscripted into service and subject to military's policies regarding homosexuality
(see below)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in South Korea can face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not entitled to the same legal protections available to heterosexuals.

Homosexuality in South Korea (Republic of Korea) is not specifically mentioned in either the South Korean Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code. Article 92 of the Military Penal Code, however, singles out sexual relations between members of the same sex as "sexual harassment", hence punishable by a maximum of one year in prison. The Military Penal Code does not make a distinction between consensual and non-consensual crimes and names consensual intercourse between homosexual adults as "reciprocal rape" ().

Western observers have often pointed out that general awareness of homosexuality as a practice or as a sexual orientation itself remains generally low among Koreans. More recently, however, there has been increased awareness and debate over the issue including several gay-related themes in the mass media and recognizable figures and celebrities, such as Hong Seok-cheon, "coming out" in public. Korean gays and lesbians face difficulties every day in Korea because they are afraid of revealing their gay identity to their family, friends or co-workers.

Early History

Although there is very little mention of homosexuality in Korean literature or traditional historical accounts, several members of nobility and Buddhist monks have been known to either profess their attraction to members of the same sex or else be actively involved with them.[1] The earliest such recorded example might be that of King Hyegong, the 36th ruler of the Silla Dynasty who was killed at the age of 22 by his noblemen who revolted in protest of his "femininity".[2]; see also "Hyegong-wang" (惠恭王) in Samguk Sagi Silla Bon-gi.

King Mokjong (980-1009) and King Gongmin (1325–1374) of Goryeo are both on record as having kept several wonchung ("male lovers") in their courts as “little-brother attendants” (chajewhi) who served as sexual partners. After the death of his wife, King Gongmin even went so far as to create a ministry whose sole purpose was to seek out and recruit young men from all over the country to serve in his court.[2]

Evidence of homosexual activities among the common people are harder to find as there are fewer records pertaining to them.

During the Joseon Era before the Japanese annexation there were travelling theater groups known as namsandang which included underaged males called midong (beautiful boys). The troupes provided "various types of entertainment, including band music, song, masked dance, circus, and puppet plays," sometimes with graphic representations of same-sex intercourse, including anal penetration performed on stage.[2]

Recent History

The modern South Korean LGBT rights movement arose in the 1990s, with several small organizations seeking to combat sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Some of these organizations also work to prevent the spread of AIDS-HIV. Among the active organizations are;

  • Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of South Korea
  • Chingusai
  • Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center
  • Lesbian and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination in Korea (LGAAG Korea),
  • Lesbian Counseling Center in S. Korea (Kirikiri)

One of the first legal victories of these organizations came in 2003, when the Korean National Human Rights Protection Committee formally advised the Korea's Youth Protection Committee to remove homophobic language from the Youth Protection Act of 1997, that had been used to justify the government harassment and censorship of LGBT South Korean film festivals and webpages [1].

In the Anti-discrimination Act introduced in 2007 by the The National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea, the section prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation has been withdrawn, following outrages from conservative Christian organisations.

Political representation

South Korean political parties tend to avoid formally addressing LGBT rights issues, as do most of the elected politicians. A major exception would be the Democratic Labour Party.

The Democratic Labour Party (), established in January 2000, is the third-largest political party in South Korea and has a political panel known as the Sexual Minorities Committee () which advocates the recognition and political representation of sexual minorities. Their stated agenda includes a campaign against homophobia and discrimination based on sexual preferences, equal rights for sexual minorities (in their own words "complete freedom, equality, and right of pursuit of happiness for homosexuals")[3] as well as the legalization of same-sex marriages.[3] On its campaign bid for the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Democratic Labour Party promised the abolition of all inequalities against sexual minorities and won a record 10 seats in the Kukhoe National Assembly.

On July 30, 2004, the Committee filed a formal complaint against the Incheon District Court's decision to refuse the recognition of same-sex marriages. The complaint was filed on the grounds that the decision is unconstitutional since neither the Constitution nor civil law define marriage as being between a man and a woman (the only mentioned requisite is age of majority) and that the Constitution explicitly forbids discrimination "pertaining to all political, economic, social, or cultural aspects of life of an individual." The Committee also claimed that refusal to recognize same-sex marriages constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation and a refusal to provide equal protection under the law.[4]

On December 19, 2007, Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party won the presidential election. In a 2007 newspaper interview, the president-elect stated that homosexuality is "abnormal", and that he opposed legal recognition of same-sex marriages [2].

During South Korea's April 9, 2008 elections, Choi Hyun-sook (최현숙) became South Korea's first openly-gay candidate for national public office when she ran for a seat in the National Assembly of South Korea. Her bid was unsuccessful.

Movies and media

The 2005 South Korean film The King and the Clown is a homosexual-themed movie based on a court affair between a king and his male jester. The movie soon became the highest grossing in Korean film in history, surpassing both Silmido and Taegukgi. Interestingly, the Korean title for The King and the Clown is "왕의 남자" which translates as "The King's Man" with the implication that it refers to the man as being the King's lover. Other recent movies include 2008 film "A Frozen Flower" and No Regret () by celebrated director Leesong hee-il (), which starred in the 2006 Busan International Film Festival.[5]

Homosexuality remained mostly taboo in South Korea until recently. The popular culture of South Korea, however, has begun addressing the issue much more visibly in recent times. Noteworthy are the airing of several popular "gay themed" commercials[6] as well as the issuing of South Korea's first magazine for sexual minority audiences.[7] Several popular and prominent entertainment figures have also made their sexualities public. Among the most noted of these are model and actress Harisu, a trans woman who makes frequent appearances in television,[8] and actor Hong Seok-cheon[9] who after being fired from his job due to his coming out scandal[10], has since returned to his acting career and has appeared in several debate programs in support of gay rights.[11]

Censorship issues

Article 31 of the National Human Rights Committee Law states that "no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation". However, the National Human Rights Committee has no legal power and lacks support from local Gay and Lesbian Associations as it has not requested the repeal of Article 92 of the Military Penal Code.

The Government of South Korea practices censorship of gay-content websites through its Information and Communications Ethics Committee(정보통신윤리위원회), an official organ of the Ministry of Information and Communication. Homosexual and gay-related websites have been frequent and easy censorship targets, being blocked, filtered, or even outright banned by the Government.[12] Most recently the Ethics Committee included several prominent gay websites and servers on its banned list, declaring them "Harmful Media to Adolescents" ("청소년유해매체물").[13][14]

However, on April 2, 2003 the Korean National Human Rights Protection Committee officially advised Korea's Youth Protection Committee to remove anti-gay language from the 1997 Youth Protection Act that underpinned the 2001 Ministry of Information and Communications decision.[15]

Military service

Military service is mandatory for all male citizens in South Korea. Enlistees are drafted through the Military Manpower Administration (MMA; ) which administers a "psychology test" at the time of enlistment that includes several questions regarding the enlistee's sexual preferences. Homosexual military members in active duty are categorized as having a "personality disorder" or "behavioural disability" and can either be institutionalized or dishonorably discharged.

This is a problem since South Korea does not allow for conscientious objection and dishonorable discharge bears with it significant social pressure, as many South Korean companies will request a complete military service profile at the time of a job application. On military records, the applicants can appear as having been dishonorably discharged either due to their homosexuality or for being "mentally handicapped".[16]

Transgender rights

The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled that in order for a person to be eligible for a sex-change operation they must be over 20 years of age, single and without children.[17] In the case of MTF (Male-to-Female) gender reassignment operations, the person must prove issues related to draft resolved by either serving or being exempted. In June 22, 2006 however, the Supreme Court ruled that transgender individuals who had undergone successful gender reassignment surgery have the right to declare themselves in their new gender in all legal documents. This includes the right to request a correction of their gender-on-file in all public and government records such as the census registry.[18]

Everyday life

The Korean word for "homosexual" is Dongseongaeja (, lit. "same-sex lover"). A less politically correct term is Dongseongyeonaeja ("동성연애자" 同性戀愛者). South Korean homosexuals however, make frequent use of the term ibanin or eban'in ("이반인"; "異般人" also "二般人") which can be translated as "second-class citizen", and is usually shortened to iban or eban ("이반"; "異般").[19] The word is a direct play on the word ilban-in ("일반인"; "一般人") meaning "normal person" or "ordinary person". In addition, English loanwords are used in South Korea to describe LGBTQ people. These words are exact translations of English words into hangul. Lesbian is "레즈비언", gay is "게이", queer is "퀴어", and transgendered is "트랜스젠더".

Homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Korean society and same-sex couples are rarely, if ever, seen in public. This lack of visibility is also reflected in the relatively low-profile maintained by many gay clubs in South Korea, most of which are owned by London based gay clubs developer and entrepreneur Tim Kim. They are concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Seoul's historic Jongno, the "college district" of Sinchon, or the foreign sector of Itaewon (especially in the section known as "Homo-hill" or "Tim's Closet").[20] Busan and the other large cities also maintain their own gay nightlife.

See also


  1. Korean Gay and Lesbian History
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hyung-Ki Choi et al.. South Korea (Taehan Min’guk). International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Continuum Publishing Company. Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
  3. 3.0 3.1 한국정당사 첫 ë™ì„±ì•  공식기구 떴다 : 정치 : 인터넷한겨레
  4. 블로그 :: 네이버
  5. 네이버 영화 :: 영화와 처음 만나는 ê³³
  8. Harisu
  9. Hanson, Lisa (2004-06-26). Gay community at crossroads. Korea Herald. Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
  10. 홍석천, 이성애자 마초 변신 “놀랍죠?” (Korean) (2006-09-07). Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
  12. South Korea. Reporters sans frontières. Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
  13. ÀÎÅͳݱ¹°¡°Ë¿­¹Ý´ë¸¦À§ÇÑ°øµ¿´ëÃ¥À§¿øȸ
  14. Reporters sans frontières - Internet - South Korea
  15. Korean Gay and Lesbian Life
  16. South Korea: Appeal: Lim Tae Hoon | Amnesty International
  17. 사람과사람 | People to People
  19. Kirikiri, the Lesbian Counseling Center in Korea; dead link as of 2009-01-17
  20. Gay Seoul Gay Resources and Travel Tips in Korea by Utopia

External links

External articles


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