Jarrod Chlapowski

As the DADT Fight Winds Down, South Korea is Just Getting Started

Filed By Jarrod Chlapowski | April 29, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, military, Servicemembers United, South Korea

On March 31, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld a 1962 law describing homosexual activity between two consenting adults as reciprocal rape, reversing on appeal a 2010 decision by a military court declaring the law to be unconstitutional. katusa.jpgThe military court held that homosexuality was strictly a personal issue and not subject to persecution, whereas the Constitutional Court cited concern with discipline throughout the South Korean military. Specifically, the Constitutional Court was concerned with superiors harassing subordinates if homosexual behavior were allowed.

The fight for allowing open service within South Korean ranks is a bit different from the fight in the U.S. South Korean youth are forced into mandatory conscription with no recognition of conscientious objection, so recruiting shortages are not a driving issue. In fact, not fulfilling one's military obligation by taking advantage of various deferrals or work-arounds is seen as a sign of cowardice, in many cases severely limiting one's societal status. When asked about their sexual orientation in pre-service psychological questioning, many South Koreans opt to lie and endure three years of silence rather than risk social stigma.

A deeper comparative look between the US and South Korea after the jump.

The South Korean gay rights movement overall is about thirty to forty years behind its U.S. counterpart. The first gay South Korean magazine just started printing in 1998, gay themed clubs are mostly restricted to a single avenue in Seoul, and mainstream television is just beginning to incorporate openly gay characters. One thing to consider, however, is the influence of social media on South Korean social progression, as well as South Korea's overall fast-track pace in catching up to the West. What results is a late but quickly evolving gay rights movement that is more defined by generation than overall societal views.

Because LGBT acceptance in South Korea is largely generational and military service is mandatory, the lower enlisted will naturally consist of non-military careerists who will likely be tolerant of the gay rights movement, while the career upper-enlisted and officer ranks will more often consist of those with homophobic views. So it is no surprise that the Constitutional Court's view of possible disarray was framed in the context of superior-subordinate relationships, when the U.S. concept of detriment to unit cohesion more focused on peer-to-peer relationships.

The battle for open service within the South Korean military has been ongoing for quite a few years now. The current threat to watch for in South Korean politics is a more overt law discouraging open service in response to the growing LGBT rights movement in South Korea, similar to the situation in the U.S. in 1993, which resulted in "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

The hope is that progress in South Korea will maintain its current pace so that the result will not be further discrimination codified into law. Regardless, this is an interesting situation to watch, especially while the U.S. military undergoes its own transition toward a policy of open and honest service.

(Note: This entry is cross posted on DefensePolicy.org. I wrote this a few weeks ago so it's a few weeks outdated. We at SU will be involving ourselves in more international work as part of our transformation into a post-repeal organization. img src)


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"Reciprocal rape"?!? Wow. I don't even know what to say in response to such absurd nonsense.

Om Kalthoum | April 29, 2011 7:57 PM

It would be nice if the poster were translated into English.

I currently live in South Korea and the issue of the army has always been a huge problem for gays here.

There are stories that fly around the country of group rape and all that jazz which are obviously deplorable but that sort of systemic rape and sexual abuse is rampant in South Korea, starting even as young as elementary school. http://www.asianoffbeat.com/default.asp?Display=1738 This is a big concern for gays because hate crimes against gays are believed to occur regularly but with no reporting on them or records held by the police, data is nearly impossible to gather.

In 2009, an independent movie was released about a gay soldier and his boyfriend coming to visit him. (http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Just_Friends_i_-picture_101327.html), but as it was fairly niche it received little exposure outside of the queer community.

While the gay rights movement in South Korea has moved at a pace significantly more quickly than the US (it has, all in all, really only exited since about 1997), it's important to avoid framing the discussion of their movement, especially regarding the role of the army and any possible DADT repeal-like government action, in terms of the US and the west.

You claim that the gay rights movements is about 30-40 years behind the US- I can understand why you might think so, in terms of laws on books, but having lived here for quite some time and having met both legislators and people taking action in the movement, I would once again recommend steering away from broad statements like that. All in all, Korean society is just too different from the US to make that sort of broad, sweeping claim.

Although it largely appears to be purely 'behind' the US, I've found that in some other ways, it's lightyears ahead. The role of mandatory military service and other hierarchical institutions discourages change in general, but in my experience, a lot of times what appears to be homophobia is more a symptom of cultural aspects that are simply hard to understand as an outsider. As with many other things, homophobia and that sort of thing just work differently here (that isn't to say that it doesn't exist, because it absolutely does).

Another interesting thing to discuss is your assertion that South Korea has been quickly 'catching up to the US' in various aspects. I think that in a lot of ways, this is a fairly biased and privileged view, especially in terms of the queer rights movement. A great deal of the movement's power have all come internally with little to no aid from the west- in fact, the import of Western religions, namely Christianity in its various forms, have actually ignited a significant amount of modern homophobia whereas more native cultural/religious traditions have less to say.

Asian countries in general place a tremendous value on the concept of family. There is a huge pressure to get married, have kids and continue the family line/clan/whatever. And failing to do that is seen to bring shame on everyone (which in itself is another huge concept in the culture).

So being gay probably isn't so much disliked in of itself, but because of its consequences. Maybe in a few decades if and when it's more common for gay people to have their own families and children there, they'll more easily fit into society.