North Korea’s only openly gay defector: ‘it’s a weird life’

It wasn’t until he escaped that Jang Yeong-jin even knew the word to describe his sexuality. He talks to Jumin Kim about his new-found identity

By North Korean standards Jang Yeong-jin had a normal start in life: he joined the military at 19, completed 10 years of national service and married soon after.

But trapped in his country, which he has called “one huge prison without bars”, problems with his marriage led him to defect to South Korea.

It was only when he crossed the border and spent time in a more open society did it become clear to him that he was homosexual, something he had never previously had a name for. The 55-year-old is now the only openly gay North Korean defector living in the South.

“I was too embarrassed [at first] to confess that I [defected] because I felt no sexual attraction to my wife… I couldn’t explain what it was that bothered me so much,” he told the New York Times in June.

“I didn’t know until after I arrived here that I was a gay, or even what homosexuality was.”

In his recently published memoir, A Mark of Red Honour, now being translated into English, Jang describes how it felt to be thrust in to the limelight living his life as a double alien: “an alien North Korean escapee in South Korean society and an alien sexual minority in a heterosexual society.”

Speaking to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, Jang explains that although he is free of the DPRK regime, life as an openly gay defector remains a challenge.

What did you know about homosexuality growing up in North Korea?

North Korea is a communist system. It’s a closed society. You don’t know how the world goes around. I considered my homosexuality as a pathological condition. . But [it] is a tragedy to live without knowing that you are gay.

What’s life like for gay people in North Korea?

As there is no concept of homosexuality, there is no awareness of the issue. In open societies, people have at least a consciousness of different sexualities, in North Korea there is no hope.

In the DPRK men spend a long time in the military, physical contact is frequent between the same sex and they experience special emotional bonds. This isn’t to say that all these men are gay, but rather, they are tied by a special comradeship.

Michael Kirby, author of a UN report into human rights in the DPRK, is an openly gay man. After the publication of his report, the Korean Central News Agency published an article that contained many homophobic slurs aimed at him. How do you feel about this?

They are morons. North Korea does not see LGBT rights in the right light yet.

But things may change. For example, North Korea used to criticise America that the women there participate in wrestling games. Now, women in North Korea also do wrestling. In that sense, history flows slow in North Korean society.

You were “outed” by a South Korean newspaper. Do you feel pressured to speak as a gay rights activist?

The LGBT rights movement in South Korea is highly politicised, and many LGBT groups in South Korea have tried to recruit me. However, if I succeed as a writer, I will have greater influence and will be able to have an independent voice [on this issue].

South Korea recently came under criticism when Seoul’s police force recently tried to ban the Korea queer culture festival. How do LGBT rights in South Korea compared to the North?

A lot has changed since my arrival here. For example, the work of activist Han Chae-yoon has made a big impact.

North Korea limits and oppresses the liberty of humans. [But] in South Korea too, although it’s a democratic society, LGBT people are discriminated against and oppressed. [In this regard] unification may benefit North and South Korea.

How do you feel about your life in South Korea now?

My life is rough here. It is hard to get a job. I earned money as a cleaner. I recently left the job to fully focus on writing.

What is your strongest memory of your life in North Korea?

I could not enjoy an ordinary, regular life. I have nothing to like or dislike about this life. I accept it as it is. It was a weird and extraordinary life. But I still want to be happy.

Translation by Jumin Kim and Saeme Kim

This article was amended on 18 February to correct a sentence suggesting Han Chae-yoon is the Ewha Womans University student president

by Jumin Kim for EAHRNK
Source – The Guardian

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