June 13, 2018 at 1:05 pm PDT | by Christopher Kane
Korean LGBTQ experts push for peace

Members of HOBAK expressed hope for peace on the Korean peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Sin Photography)

A brief statement signed June 12 by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un concluded a historic summit in Singapore. The agreement was short on details but fodder for explosive speculation.

Trump committed the U.S. to vague “security guarantees” in exchange for a “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” with no specific language about verification or a timeline.

Trump also called off “war games,” otherwise known as joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea that has heretofore provided an umbrella of protection for the region. The announcement surprised both South Korea President Moon Jae-in and the Pentagon.

“Our military exercises are defensive in nature,” Frank Jannuzi, CEO of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and former deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, told the Los Angeles Blade. “What’s remarkable to me here is that you’ve got Trump unilaterally suspending those exercises and getting nothing for it. It’s not like the North had made a reciprocal pledge to both suspend production of fissile material [that which is capable of sustaining a nuclear fission reaction] and to suspend their large-scale military exercises.”

Trump “is way out of his depth,” “duped” by the violent dictator Kim Jong Un, former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC. The statement of principles was something Un had already signed more specifically with South Korea.

Others, however, remain optimistic. Ju-hyun Park, a member of the Communications Committee of Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans (HOBAK), a San Francisco-area collective founded as a home for queer and trans Koreans, told the Los Angeles Blade: “The cancellation of U.S.-ROK [South Korean] military drills and the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] commitment to denuclearization are positive steps towards the realization of peace and reunification on the peninsula. We hope talks continue and result in demilitarization and denuclearization, including of U.S. assets.”

Christine Ahn, co-founder of the Korea policy Institute and founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ—a coalition of women working to end the decades-long stalemated Korean War—told Democracy Now on Tuesday: “This is unprecedented. It’s a new day for the Korean peninsula. The joint statement talks about peace and prosperity and security. It remains the job of civil society, and especially of women’s groups, to be sure we’re included in this peace process.”

Women and LGBTQ Koreans have long been pushing for peace in the region as the best way to secure more freedoms and protections for gender and sexual minorities on the Korean peninsula. Both North and South Korea have been beset by human rights abuses, as well as prejudice from the American-influenced Christian Right against LGBTQ people.

Trump said human rights abuses were discussed “briefly” during the summit, but did not elaborate. Rather, he showed Un a four-minute video produced by WhiteHouse.gov and California-based Destiny Productions about what his country could be. The video comes off as a movie trailer “about a special moment in time when a man is presented one chance that may never be repeated. What will he choose – to show vision and leadership – or not?” Trump, who lavished praise on Un, told reporters that the North Korean leader and his entourage were impressed.

Many experts and activists, including members of HOBAK, watched the summit with both trepidation and excitement since the world leaders are known for being unpredictable. They feel the inclusion of women and LGBTQ communities in peace talks could help to usher in an era of demilitarization and reconciliation and want to offer insights into a better way forward.

HOBAK, a group of 20 grassroots activists, promote gender equality, LGBTQ rights, demilitarization, Korean reunification, and other progressive policies both on the Korean Peninsula and in the U.S. The group believes that American involvement in the ongoing Korean War has only stymied hopes for peace and demilitarization.

“I think we’ve been seeing this again with Donald Trump’s administration, where they have been really fanning the flames of hostility and tension,” Hyejin Shim told the LA Blade. “U.S. occupation has really impacted the politics of South Korea because the U.S. has positioned itself as South Korea’s benefactor and savior. To our understanding, the relationship between the U.S. and the South Korean government—that was a relationship that propped up South Korean dictators for many decades after the Korean War,” started June 25, 1950.

Having women and LGBTQ folks involved in the peacemaking process leads to actual and more lasting peace deals, said Ahn, who has hosted international peace summits in Seoul and Pyongyang. The ongoing state of war is “used by governments on both sides to justify a very repressive national security state. Obviously, on a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10 in North Korea. And in South Korea, it depends on whether it’s a more progressive or liberal administration, versus a neoconservative one.” While she did not minimize North Korea’s record on human rights, Ahn said the treatment of LGBTQ visitors has been worse in South Korea, by comparison. 

Ahn has led delegations of Korean-Americans to North Korea, half of whom have been queer. “It’s really extraordinary the percentage of queer Koreans who have been involved in this [peace and de-militarization] movement,” Ahn said. In one instance, a woman asked the government-appointed tour guide “minder” what he imagined Kim Jong-un would say concerning queer people. The “minder” said something to the effect of:  “It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, as long as you’re for the revolution and for advancing equality.”

When the woman relayed the story to elderly first-generation Korean-American immigrants in the U.S.—a community traditionally known to be heterosexist and patriarchal—she received a standing ovation. “It just shows there isn’t a monolithic view or experience within North Korea, that there are obviously competing views,” Ahn said. “It’s important to have these honest conversations to bring about change both there and here.”

“We know that nations at war are not friendly to human rights,” she said. “Not to justify it, but why don’t we try a different approach? Why don’t we try engagement? If we can get to peace, a lot of things will improve in the day-to-day existence of people [on the Korean Peninsula].”

Jannuzi agreed that peace and human rights “go hand in hand.” However, he said, “The hostilities don’t account for the lack of a judicial system or trial; the inability to worship; the inability to have access to information; or the restrictions on people to express any criticism of the government. Their policies are draconian. They exercise collective punishment of entire families—children and parents are sent to jail for crimes committed by family members. It’s an authoritarian state that’s keeping a tight grip on its people.”

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea), Jannuzi noted, found the country is among the world’s more repressive and intolerant societies. “There are maybe 120,000 political prisoners who are in gulags because of their political beliefs. That may include people who are [incarcerated for] their sexual orientation or sexual practices,” but there is a lack of good data on this front.

LGBTQ communities in South Korea, too, face social and political repression. As Pride celebrations unfold in cities and towns across the United States, LGBTQ people in Seoul will risk their safety by taking to the streets in rainbow regalia. Counter-protesters have been known to assault Pride participants, who often wear sunglasses and concealing headgear to guard against accidental or intentional outing because they fear reprisal from their families, employers, friends and communities.

Shim, who is queer, told the LA Blade the South Korean military has been known to root out gay and bisexual men from its ranks by using entrapment techniques. Service members are solicited with gay apps such as Jack’d and Grindr that are often used by men who have sex with men. After they are outed and subsequently discharged from the armed forces, gay and bisexual men face prison sentences because able-bodied men in South Korea between the ages of 18 and 35 must complete two years of compulsory military service. If they don’t complete the full two-year term, they are required to make up the difference in a correctional facility.

Additionally, while consensual same-sex activity is legal among civilians in South Korea, it is punishable by up to two years imprisonment—or institutionalization—if participants are in the military.

Despite the pervasiveness of homophobia in South Korea, HOBAK is hopefully advocating for a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. Pew research found public opinion has shifted toward LGBT acceptance more in South Korea than in any of the other 39 countries surveyed.

Homophobia persists, however, fueled by a Christian conservatism originated in the late 1880s. For instance, South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in has a distinguished record of supporting progressive policies, but answered a campaign question about gay rights by saying he is against homosexuality.  

But HOBAK persists, as well. During her most recent trip to Jeju Island, part of South Korea’s Jeju Province, Shim attended Pride celebrations and witnessed the viciousness of counter-protesters wielding signs akin to those brandished by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. “So much of South Korean politics is very interrelated and interconnected,” Shim said. “So there are LGBT folks doing labor stuff—queer people are everywhere, so of course they’re involved in everything.”

Ahn is pleased with the summit. Nuclear weapons would instantly kill 300,000 people on the Korean Peninsula and now Trump no longer has the option to launch a first strike. Ahn believes Women Cross DMZ “planted a seed” in Trump’s mind through a letter they sent him saying he had unique opportunity to do what no American president has successfully done before: bring an end to the longest U.S. conflict.

Jannuzi said that peace would open the door to further negotiations, including those focused on human rights. “I don’t think there’s anything about the North Korean human rights situation that would be improved through coercion,” he said. “Pressure in the form of military pressure or economic sanctions is not the way to convince them to improve their human rights record.”

Jannuzi would like to see a human rights working group that would address human rights and human security issues, including in freedom of expression and religion, as well as protections for LGBTQ people. “Making peace with North Korea,” he said, “is the best way to gain access and leverage to begin to improve human rights in North Korea.”

Jannuzi however, cautioned that this most recent pledge by North Korea to denuclearize is “more vague, weaker, and less specific than almost all of the previous commitments that have been made,” while also extolling the importance of the Summit. “We’ve accomplished very little so far, but we’ve started a process,” he said.

Ahn is focused on peace: “This could be so good for peace in Korea, peace in northeast Asia, for the abolishment of nuclear weapons and for world peace. And we should not be trying to derail it because of our disdain for Trump but see it in the broader picture of what this means for the possibility of a future of world peace.”

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