Despite its economic progress South Korea remains hostile to homosexuals — so much so that Kim Kyung-hwan, a young gay man, was granted refugee status in Canada.
Kim Kyung-hwan arrived in Canada in June 2006 with no clear plans in mind.
“I really just needed some time to think and decide what to do. I knew that if I went home I would have to go to jail,” Kyung-hwan, 30, told the Star.
Kyung-hwan objected to the 21 months of compulsory military service that all able-bodied South Korean males face. As a pacifist strongly opposed to violent conflict, Kyung-hwan had serious reservations about taking up arms and possibly being required to use them.
Perhaps even more importantly, Kyung-hwan feared that as a homosexual his human rights would be violated in the patriarchal South Korean military.
Kyung-hwan saw Canada as a place where his rights would be respected.
“It’s very difficult to come out as a gay guy in Korea. There are very few people who are openly gay and their lives are not easy,” he said.
“The society is closed to homosexuals and people who are different. The general attitude toward homosexuals is very bad. In Korea if you’re a homosexual they treat you like you’re mentally ill or sexually perverted.”
Despite South Korea’s breakneck economic development, it remains a conservative country when it comes to sexuality. “The treatment of homosexuals really made me make up my mind (to leave Korea),” Kyung-hwan said.
It took about three years between his application for refugee status in 2006 and when he received the verdict. “I was stuck for three years. In that time, I couldn’t plan anything because I never knew when the hearing was going to be. But I knew I wanted to stay in Canada. That was what my heart told me to do.”
Kyung-hwan received the verdict of his successful claim for refugee status in 2009. He kept his story private until recently when activists from Korea’s Centre for Military Rights encouraged him to release the information from his case, to encourage public discussion on homosexuality and conscientious objectors.
The United Nations has ruled South Korea’s mandatory military service a violation of human rights. The prospect that South Korean soldiers may be asked to use lethal force, according to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), may provide a legal basis for objection to combat duty by conscientious objectors.
On March 24, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) ruled for a third time that South Korea’s imprisonment of conscientious objectors violated its obligations under Article 18. But the UN can’t force sovereign South Korea, though it is a UN member, to abide by the Article 18 rulings.
Violent incidents in recent years have raised questions about conditions in the South Korean military. In 2005, a South Korean private tossed a grenade at a military post on the demilitarized zone at the North Korean border and used a firearm to kill eight soldiers. In July 2011 a South Korean marine corporal went on a shooting rampage in which four marines died and one was wounded. He also detonated a grenade in what appeared to be a suicide attempt.
Kyung-hwan described the repressive atmosphere in the military. “Even if you are severely harassed you can’t talk about it because the situation will only get worse. The military doesn’t protect us; they just harass us.”
He has found peaceful refuge in Canada.
“As a homosexual and conscientious objector in Canada, those things aren’t an issue. I can’t say there is no hatred towards homosexuals here, because no country is perfect, but the situation is totally different from Korea. All my co-workers know that I’m gay and they’re totally cool to me. There is tremendous freedom to live here as a homosexual.”
Kyung-hwan still has significant obstacles to building a full life in Canada, since his Korean education isn’t recognized here. He works as a bartender in Calgary and hopes to return to school in the next year.
“It hasn’t been easy. I now need to start over. I don’t have the skills and experience of a lot of people my age. I lost everything I had in Korea, like education, language, friends.”
While he suffered losses, he describes making valuable gains. In the essay Kyung-hwan wrote to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada making his case for refugee status he wrote, “I do not want to live ‘in the closet;’ in Korea you must live in the closet, otherwise you can loose your job, face discrimination and even violence.
“In Canada I can be who I am.”
The Korean military service seems a bit oppressive and it is extremely hard for queer men since it is a two years commitment. Within these two years, you must go back in the closet or risk punishment. I am glad Canada granted refugee status for Kim Kyunhwan but isn’t it a bit excessive? Should Canada accepts all gay koreans or every gay men where their country shun on them? Instead of taking on more burden, Canada should urge korea to promote open dialogue on homosexuality. PS: A lot of my friends who were in the army had flings with other army men. They said it was risky, but when you’re horny, straight men will do anything.