When 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. 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. “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.”
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.
[The New York Times]