Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Michael from Phnom Penh asks:
I’m just curious as to gay and lesbian life and culture in North Korea. Is there in fact any existence of it?
Personally, I never knew anyone who was gay in North Korea, but I’ve heard a lot from grownups about things that happen in the military.
Unlike South Korea’s two-year mandatory military service, North Korean men are obligated to serve in the military for 10 long years. It’s tolerable for soldiers stationed on the military bases near neighborhoods. But soldiers who are stationed on military bases located in the middle of the mountains do not get to see women for 10 years.
In my older brother’s case, he says he hardly saw a woman during his 13 years of military service. He says he probably would have had to climb past seven-to-10 mountains to see a woman during military service.
That’s why senior officers have been known take charge of “pretty boy privates.” Some of them might have been gay. But others may have done so not because they were gay but because they didn’t have any women around for so many years.
A RARE GLIMPSE
In my teenage years, I went to do volunteer works in a farming community. High school students in North Korea are obligated to volunteer in farming communities for a month each year. That’s when I went to a remote village in the mountains for the first time and it was there that I saw a gay man for the first time in my life.
You could tell even from distance that he was a man, but he was sitting on a stone by the brook with thick makeup on. I thought it was so weird and peculiar that I asked local people living in that neighborhood about him.
It turns out that he was a man, but he always put on makeup and was a cross-dresser in the city. So, his parents sent him to this remote village deep in the mountains.
Of course, I didn’t hear this from the guy himself since I never spoke to him in person, but I used to see him from a distance with my friends many times. We thought it was a bit weird but still very interesting.
Adults used to say that (lesbians are) so sweet to their girlfriends. Once you fall in love with them, you’re not likely to be attracted to men again
But lesbians? I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a woman, but I’ve met and hung out with many of them! Most of my lesbian friends loved to dress like men. They wore men’s clothes, kept their hair very short and acted like men, too. They all liked to date women, not men.
Adults used to say that they’re so sweet to their girlfriends. Once you fall in love with them, you’re not likely to be attracted to men again. Still, being in a relationship with someone of the same sex has a bad reputation in North Korea and, most importantly, their parents were opposed to it.
Parents of girls would do anything to keep their daughters from lesbian girlfriends. So, they would call the police or even slap the girls. But even if the parents of a daughter with a girlfriend call the police, they couldn’t be arrested since it wasn’t against the law. Even if the police wanted to play hardball, they couldn’t punish them for homosexuality.
All they could do was to make them write a letter in which they promise not to cross-dress, and then they were free to go. What’s important is that lesbians would be an object of ridicule or gossip but they weren’t shunned or excluded from North Korean society.
WHAT DO YOU CALL…?
Trans-gender people do exist in North Korea. However, the sex reassignment operation is not done for one’s sexual orientation but for medical reasons. For instance, if a sexless baby is born, the hospital performs the sex-change operation after discussion with the baby’s parents.
However, bear in mind that this isn’t something that someone I knew experienced, but what I’ve heard from other people while I was in North Korea. But I can tell you with full confidence that it is impossible to be a transgender in North Korea solely for your sexual orientation. There are two reasons: 1) medical technology in North Korea is far behind other countries, and 2) no one could afford the surgery.
But there were people whose gender identity was hard to figure out. There was this one particular person living in the neighborhood next to mine that people were always busy gossiping about. I wasn’t sure whether I should refer to this person as “aunt” or “uncle” (in Korea, you don’t call older people by their first names; you should call them “aunt,” “uncle,” “grandma” or “grandpa”).
This person was married to a man and had two kids. Still, this person cheated on their husband with a woman and thus was always on people’s lips. When you met this person for the first time you would think she was a man. Although this person was voluptuous, with boobs bigger than any other woman in the neighborhood, everyone thought this person was a man.
Women are not supposed to ride bicycles in North Korea, but she could ride a bicycle. That’s because even the traffic police couldn’t figure out the gender of this person. They couldn’t stop her from riding the bike. Before they could figure out the gender, she was already gone.
She was friendly and nice to everyone, so I always liked her. My mom’s friend had been a widow for a long time and fell in love with her. That’s why I became a close friend to her.
She took care of all the house chores typically performed by men in the house. She maintained a good relationship with her husband and she was a good mother to her children and, most importantly, she was the breadwinner in the family.
People probably wanted to gossip about her not because of her bisexuality. They probably gossiped about her because of jealousy that she made lots of money while having a good family.
JUST ANOTHER CHOICE
Since leaving the North, I have learned more about LGBT issues in the women’s studies class I took. When I was in North Korea, I hadn’t heard the terms “gay” and “lesbian.” All I thought was that they had different sexual preference. As long as they were good people, we didn’t have any problem being friends with them regardless of their sexual preference.
I believe you don’t have a reason to be opposed to homosexuality as expressing one’s sexual orientation is equivalent to expressing one’s preference in a capitalist, democratic society
Of course, people would gossip from time to time because they didn’t have anything else to do in their free time. People didn’t treat them with contempt and the LGBTs were never shunned or excluded from the society.
After arriving in South Korea, I saw that the LGBTs were a social issue and often found in public discussion. I tried to take an interest in the issue but I never paid much attention to it since it wasn’t directly of interest.
I believe you don’t have a reason to be opposed to homosexuality as expressing one’s sexual orientation is equivalent to expressing one’s preference in a capitalist, democratic society.
I’m well-aware that some people argue that the increase in gay marriage lowers the birthrate. But there’s no guarantee that every straight married couple will have a child – not all of them give birth to a child.
Plus, gay and lesbian couples can adopt kids and give birth to children through sperm donation. Thus, this cannot be an argument against gay people.
I think many people share the same opinions as me but only when they’re not directly involved with it. But I think they’ll have different opinions if they have someone in their family who turns out to be gay.
I personally believe we need to be more understanding of sexual minorities and, in order to be more considerate of them, we need to pay more attention to them.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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