being gay in North Korea, Jang Yeong-jin

This Refugee Reveals What It’s Like Being Gay in Militarized North Korea

This post is also available in: French

As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un rattle their sabres at one another amid threats of nuclear retaliation, it’s easy to characterize North Korea as unstable, but that ignores the United States’ contributions to its threatened, isolationist posture on the world stage as well as the plight of individual North Koreans living under Jon-un’s rule.

Take Jang Yeong-jin, for instance. He’s a gay North Korean who defected to South Korea after a lifetime spent closeted in the totalitarian country.

In a recent interview with CNN, Yeong-jin admitted that he never loved his wife and felt guilty, confused and ashamed for “ruining” her life. During their time together, he was actually in love with a childhood friend — he and his friend used to hold hands and sleep together in the same bed, something that he says is common in a country where few people have ever heard of homosexuality, let alone understand it.

“One day my friend came to see me,” he said. “That night I left my wife’s bed and got into his, my heart was beating so fast as he slept and I couldn’t figure out why I felt so hurt by him.” While attending Pyongyang University, Yeong-jin admitted his same-sex attraction to a neurologist who started yelling at him — frightened, he fled the doctor’s office.

While North Korea doesn’t have any laws forbidding homosexuality, it doesn’t have legalized same-sex marriage or explicit LGBTQ non-discrimination protections either. In 2011, the country opposed a United Nations declaration calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. Furthermore, the state-controlled media forbids positive depictions of LGBTQ people and treats same-sex relations as a Western-imported vice. A vague national law also forbids any acts ”against the socialist lifestyle,” a vaguely worded provision that may have rationalized the execution of two lesbians in 2011.

We’ve written about Yeong-jin before. In April 2015, the now 60-year-old man wrote a memoir entitled A Mark of Red Honor detailing his experiences growing up in North Korea, and in February 2016, he spoke with The New York Times about his life there.

being gay in North Korea 01, Jang Yeong-jin
Jang Yeong-jin speaks to a CNN interviewer in his South Korean garden.

Yeong-jin spent 10 years inNorth Korea’s compulsory military service. During that time, he said, many military men would sleep together to stay warm and comfort one another.

“When I was in the military, there was a senior who had the same problem as me after he got married,” he told CNN. “He used to come and see me. Plus, there was a man in my hometown who never got married and lived alone all his life. North Korean society treated these people as abnormal.”

After the death of the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in 1992, his successor Kim Jong-il pursued a “military first” policy to strengthen the country’s world standing and discourage any internal dissent. As a result, North Korea has a military-focused culture used to uphold their leader’s perceived strength. North Korea also experiences an Asian variety of homophobia that views homosexuality as antithetical to heterosexual, child-focused family structure. This blends with a Russian and Chinese variety that sees homosexuality as a challenge to governmental policies forbidding it.

Miserable in North Korea, Yeong-jin decided to flee across the border into China in 1996, forcing him to cross the demilitarized zone, a potentially lethal area filled with mines that other defectors only ever cross as a last resort. About 13 month later, he made it into South Korea. There, at the age of 37, he read about homosexuality for the first-time ever in his life in a magazine. Finally, he felt like he had an identity, a word and a culture to express his feelings.

Now living in South Korea, Yeong-jin has no family or friends and says he feels like a “double alien” as a Northern foreigner and a gay man. A man he got into a relationship in 2006 with swindled him of his life’s savings. All the same, he remains optimistic that his freedom and writing in South Korea will improve his life.

Despite that, he wants to avoid joining ranks with the South Korea LGBT! rights movement, saying, ”If I succeed as a writer, I will have greater influence and will be able to have an independent voice [on LGBT issues].”