North Korean Defector Opens Up About Long-Held Secret: His Homosexuality

The New York Times/June 5, 2015 

By Choe Sang-Hun

Seoul, South Korea — WHEN the North Korean defector Jang Yeong-jin arrived in South Korea in 1997, officials debriefed him for five months but still hesitated to release him. They had one crucial question unanswered: Why did Mr. Jang decide to risk crossing the heavily armed border between the two Koreas?

“I was too embarrassed to confess that I came here because I felt no sexual attraction to my wife,” Mr. Jang said. “I couldn’t explain what it was that bothered me so much, made my life so miserable in North Korea, because I didn’t know until after I arrived here that I was a gay, or even what homosexuality was.”

Mr. Jang, 55, is the only known openly gay defector from North Korea living in the South. His sexual orientation was briefly exposed in 2004, when he lost all his savings to a swindler and contacted gay rights activists for help. He had since avoided publicity in South Korea, where homosexuality largely remains taboo.

Then in late April, Mr. Jang published an autobiographical novel, “A Mark of Red Honor.” In the book and during a recent interview, he described his experiences as a gay man growing up in the totalitarian North, where the government maintains that homosexuality does not exist because people there live with a “sound mentality and good morals.”

His struggle continued even in the capitalist South, where he said he felt like a “double alien”: a North Korean refugee who was also gay.

“In North Korea, no ordinary people conceptually understand what homosexuality is,” said Joo Sung-ha, who attended the elite Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in the 1990s and now works as a reporter for the mass-circulation South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo. “In my university, only half the students may have heard of the word. Even then, it was always treated as some strange, vague mental illness afflicting subhumans, only found in the depraved West.”

While North Korea has no laws explicitly prohibiting same-sex relationships, it is not shy about expressing its homophobia. Last year, for example, it said that Michael D. Kirby, a former Australian judge who led a United Nations investigation of human rights abuses in the country, was “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”

Mr. Jang said he never heard of homosexuality while growing up in Chongjin on the eastern coast of North Korea, even when he developed a crush on another boy named Seon-cheol. They continued their friendship after moving to Pyongyang, where they attended different colleges.

“When the subway was crowded, I sat on Seon-cheol’s lap, and he would hug me from behind,” Mr. Jang said. “People didn’t care, thinking we were childhood friends.”

The two were separated in 1976, when they joined the military at age 17, where close physical relationships became a matter of survival.

“In winter, when soldiers were given only two threadbare blankets each and little heat, it was common for us to find a partner and sleep hugging each other at night to keep warm,” Mr. Jang said. “We considered it part of what the party called ‘revolutionary comradeship.’ ”

Other North Korean defectors have reported homosexual behavior in the North Korean military, where soldiers serve mandatory 10-year tours with few chances of meeting the opposite sex. When four former female soldiers and police officers from the North held a news conference in Seoul in April to talk about the sexual abuse they had witnessed, one of them cited the case of a lesbian officer preying on new arrivals.

“There was a lot of sexual abuse, like groping at night,” a former North Korean military officer, Choe Jong-hun, told Chosun TV, a South Korean cable channel, in August. “But we later found ourselves having new recruits lying beside us.”

In Mr. Jang’s front-line unit, he said, officers and senior soldiers bribed him with apples and food to lure him into their blankets. After performing nighttime sentry duty in a snowstorm, he said, he would find comfort “in the bosom” of his favorite platoon leader. From across the border, propaganda broadcasts from South Korea enticed the cold lonesome Communist soldiers to defect, promising “meat, monthly leaves and pretty women.”

Mr. Jang was discharged from the military in 1982 after contracting tuberculosis. Back in Chongjin, he worked as a wireless communications official at the port. In 1987, he wed a mathematics teacher in an arranged marriage.

“Most gay men in the North end up marrying whether they like it or not, because that’s the only way they know,” Mr. Jang said. “On the first night of my marriage, I thought of Seon-cheol and could not lay a finger on my wife.”

After years of childless marriage, the couple heeded relatives’ pleas and saw a doctor to make sure there were no physical problems. There were none. Mr. Jang filed for divorce but was denied one. His wife also appealed to him to stay, fearful of losing her teaching job. He re-established ties with Seon-cheol, who returned from the military, married a nurse and had two children.

The two friends occasionally visited each other, and their wives let them sleep together, thinking it was a habit from their childhood. One such night, Mr. Jang slipped out of the blanket he shared with his wife and crawled to Seon-cheol’s. But he said his friend did not respond and kept snoring.

“It was then that I realized that my life was a prison and I had no hope,” he said. “I wanted to fly away like a wild goose. I also wanted to set my wife free from loveless marriage.”

In the winter of 1996, he swam across an icy river into China. After looking in vain for 13 months for a passage to South Korea, he slipped back into the North and crawled cross the border into the South in 1997. He was one of only a handful of defectors to make it across the mine-strewn frontier. His defection made headlines.

In South Korea, officials eventually released him after he spoke of his troubled marriage. But Mr. Jang still did not fully understand his sexual orientation until he read an article about gay rights in 1998. It showed pictures of a same-sex couple kissing and two naked men in bed, and it reported that there were gay bars in Seoul.

“It was as if lights go on in my world,” he said.

But Mr. Jang’s transition to life in South Korea has been rough. In 2004, a gay man who promised to be his partner absconded with all his savings. Around this time, he also learned that three brothers and a sister in the North had died after the family was banished from their village after his defection.

A North Korean defector who had known Mr. Jang’s family in the North said his wife was also expelled from the village, but was later reinstated. The defector spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still had family members in the North.

Mr. Jang makes a living cleaning a building in downtown Seoul from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Not an easy life, he admits, but far preferable to his life in the North.

“There are many homosexuals in North Korea who live a miserable life without even knowing why,” he said. “What a tragedy it is to live a life without knowing who you are.”

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