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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 23, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 51
Living in silence: Gay North Korea
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Living in silence: Gay North Korea

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Life inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea, is not generally well understood. The nation is among the most isolated in the world. 'Reclusive' only begins to scratch the surface of what one could say about the DPRK's obsession with secrecy. And because people often fear what they don't know, North Korea isn't exactly on the best of terms with Asia - or the rest of the world, for that matter.

On December 17, according to North Korean officials, Kim Jong Il died. The leader's death has ushered in a period of tremendous uncertainty in Northeast Asia, an area of the world that the late leader helped to destabilize on more than one occasion. South Korea immediately ramped up its level of military alert and Japan held emergency military meetings while the U.S. remained in close contact with the two allied nations.

The region is an explosive geopolitical mix. The South, which has the support of the United States, and the nuclear-armed North, allied with China, have technically remained at war since the conflict that split the peninsula in the 1950s.

Even before Kim's death, tensions had spiked between the two Koreas last year. The North was accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea and fired artillery at a South Korean island in November 2010, killing two civilians.

But the U.S. and other parties appeared to make progress in recent weeks as they tried to revive negotiations, known as the six-party talks, over the North's nuclear program.

Those efforts now seem to have been in vain. Kim Jong Il is dead, and his son, Kim Jong Un (about whom little is known) is now apparently in control of the closed communist nation.

Late last year, Kim Jong Il promoted his 28-year-old son to the rank of four-star general, in what was seen as a bid to extend the nation's ruling dynasty to a third generation. Despite that support, analysts say Kim Jong Un has had little time to earn the trust of power brokers in the military and the ruling Korean Workers' party.

GAY LIFE IN NORTH KOREA A MYSTERY

Researching Gay life in the DPRK is like navigating your way through a dark tunnel without the aid of a flashlight - you don't know which way to turn, dead ends are common, and little ground is gained.

The DPRK does, however, have some information that has been made available to the public about their views on homosexuality. Although it is difficult to report definitively on what the legal status for LGBT North Koreans is, the official government statement is as follows:

'Due to tradition in Korean culture, it is not customary for individuals of any sexual orientation to engage in public displays of affection. As a country that has embraced science and rationalism, 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. However, North Koreans also place a lot of emphasis on social harmony and morals. Therefore, the DPRK rejects many characteristics of the popular Gay culture in the West, which many perceive to embrace consumerism, classism, and promiscuity.'

This statement seems to insinuate that homosexuality may not be illegal, but public displays of affection, Gay-themed clubs, Gay-rights activism, and sexual promiscuity are probably all frowned upon.

'THE CONCEPT OF SAME-SEX ATTRACTION HARDLY EXISTS IN THE MINDS OF PEOPLE'

There is such fear and secrecy about many aspects of North Korea that it is difficult to find anything reliable about everyday life there, especially in regard to homosexuality.

For answers on what Gay life in North Korea might look like, I turned to GlobalGayz.com, a Gay owned charitable travel and culture website focused on LGBT life in countries around the world. The information and firsthand accounts on the website are based on actual visits to countries and are presented in stories, links, and news.

GlobalGayz officials said, 'The concept of same-sex attraction hardly exists in the minds of people. Even with people who feel this attraction, there is ignorance about what it means or how it can be expressed in behavior.'

Homosexuality is not discussed in public and it's a likely assumption that almost all Gay or Lesbian people are conditioned or coerced into marriage and they live that way without ever understanding their conflicted feelings, GlobalGayz officials report.

Even for someone with a bit of knowledge about human behavior, the official view is that homosexuality is an aberration that exists only in a capitalist society, they said.

'I am sure there is homosexual activity in some places, but these would be impossible to find and, as well, surrounded with fear and ignorance and guilt,' wrote one GlobalGayz official. 'Since sexual desire and longing are felt in people of all cultures, I would also guess there are some very secret places where anonymous homo sex happens, but probably at night and very quickly. There would be no lingering 'love-making,' but rather getting off and then running home.'

That same official reported they searched the internet and found almost nothing. 'There was one story excerpt from a newspaper in Pakistan about North Korean workers in Cuba. A second reference is a blog summary about an escaped North Korean man who had no idea how to understand his homosexual feelings until he got to South Korea and was exposed to information and the freedom to act on his feelings.'

'HOMOSEXUALITY IS A CHARACTERISTIC OF WESTERN MORAL DEGENERACY'

There is much more known about what North Korea does not recognize than what it does. For instance, the DPRK does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships. Culturally, North Koreans face strong social pressure to marry a suitable person of the opposite sex and the government rarely allows divorce.

It is unclear what the North Korean government's policy on Transgender citizens is. No laws are known to exist that address sexual orientation or gender identity based discrimination or harassment. However, there exists a vaguely worded law that the government can use to punish anyone who is deemed to be 'against the socialist lifestyle,' which could be used to harass or discriminate against LGBT people.

It is also unclear what the age of consent, if any, for homosexual activity is. Article 153 of the criminal law states that a man who has sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 15 shall be 'punished gravely,' but the law is unclear about the age of consent for boys or for same-sex sexual activity.

North Korean propaganda has sporadically portrayed homosexuality as a characteristic of Western (particularly American) moral degeneracy.

North Korea opposed both the U.N. declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity, which called for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality, and the exclusion of sexual orientation as discriminatory grounds for execution. Its precise reasons for doing so remain unclear.

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