By Alexander Wheeler and Katie Sgarro
South Korea: a country with a booming economy, cutting-edge technology, addictive K-Pop music, and internationally celebrated barbeque. Many people know it for its rapid industrialization, beauty obsession, and proximity to its Northern neighbor. While its human rights failures are often beat by close and neighboring countries, it’s important to recognize that LGBTQ Koreans are still forced to live in the margins of mainstream society.
South Korea is a fiercely heteronormative place – where the recently elected president, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, has participated in anti-gay rallies and made anti-gay statements, in line with many of the country’s influential Christian churches and lobbies. The government refuses to take action against the violence and discrimination faced by its LGBTQ citizens – consistently failing to pass anti-discrimination laws that would protect sexual minorities.
The South Korean military has been accused of a “witch hunt” against gay soldiers. According to the 2016 Human Rights Country Report issued by the U.S. Department of State, “LGBTI individuals and organizations continue to face societal discrimination. The Military Criminal Act’s ‘disgraceful conduct’ clause criminalizes consensual sodomy between men in the military with up to two years imprisonment.”
In May of 2017, for the first time, the Korean military enforced this decades-old ban and sentenced a gay soldier to six months in jail for having consensual sex with another male soldier.
In the latest roundup, 18 gay service members were identified and are now facing criminal charges, even though they had sex on leave or off duty. In contrast, when a male and female officer were caught having sex on duty, they were suspended for three months without criminal charges. During this recent crackdown on gay soldiers, mobile phones were seized without warrants in order to identify other gay soldiers through contact lists and dating app profiles. Since all able-bodied men aged 18-35 are required by law to compulsory military service for 21 to 24 months, being gay in South Korea is becoming increasingly dangerous.
As the Korean military continues to target gay soldiers and the government fails to institute anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual minorities, seeking refuge in countries like the United States is becoming a tried-and-true option for gay men afraid of being victimized during compulsory military service. Yet, while right-wing Christian groups in South Korea consider homosexual activity in the military to be a disruption to its readiness to fight North Korea, President Donald Trump recently announced a ban on transgender people serving in the United States military – citing “disruption” that “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.” It is suspected that pressure from the Family Research Council, a powerful Christian conservative group, strongly influenced President Trump’s decision.
Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back social progress and civil rights, the United States remains a “beacon of hope” for many persecuted LGBTQ people worldwide. For LGBTQ Koreans, even in this highly charged sociopolitical context, the U.S. continues to represent safety, freedom, and a rare chance for authenticity. And as a result, persecuted LGBTQ people from around the world will continue to seek asylum in the U.S. It’s imperative that we all – including the Trump administration – remember this.
Organizations, like AsylumConnect, exist in order to ensure that persecuted LGBTQ people are able to find safety and community when they arrive in the U.S. – even in the face of bigoted administrations. Through resource guides and information sharing, we can arm LGBTQ asylum seekers with the information they need to successfully integrate into safer environments. The United States needs to remain a beacon of hope, because for many, there is simply no other option.