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2014-06-16 15:12
The Korea Times will run a Reporters’ Notebook series by its reporters who were honored through the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) 2014 awards to share with our readers what they want to add to their award-winning entries. We start with Kim Young-jin, who, together with Kim Tong-hyung, took an honorable mention in the human rights reporting category. — ED.

By Kim Young-jin



Last week, the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) handed out their annual awards in Hong Kong for outstanding journalism. Among the prizewinners, our series about sexual minorities in Korea was awarded honorable mention for human rights reporting.

The prize was important for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it validates the work involved in reporting on underreported issues; and reinforces the importance of stories that can spark conversation and deepen how we think about issues.

But more importantly for my co-author Kim Tong-hyung and me, the honor added a measure of validation to our impulse to report on the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Korea. That SOPA’s judges recognized our series reflects the importance of LGBT rights in the broader dialogue of human rights in Asia ― even if it’s a topic that politicians here avoid at all costs.

LGBT people in Korea have very little political visibility, a fact that was clearly demonstrated during the 2012 presidential election.

Liberal contender Moon Jae-in ― running on a populist platform ― had pledged to explore “institutional alternatives” on the issue of same-sex marriage. But when conservative Christian lobbyists pushed, Moon’s Democratic United Party flip-flopped, pledging to “prevent laws permitting homosexual relations and marriages.”

The incident was less than a blip on the political radar. But when we began researching the story several months later, we learned what a profoundly disappointing moment it was for the LGBT community. For LGBT Koreans and their allies, it was reminder of their steep climb to political relevance.

Interviews revealed how society has failed to protect LGBT citizens, and in some cases, how the government violated their rights. One man told us that after he was “outed” during military service, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital run by the army because homosexuality was defined as a sexual “disorder.” There, he said he was tested for HIV without his consent and abused.

Information has been so scarce that one woman recalled having to type the question “What is a lesbian?” into Google to cope with her sexual identity issues. Life in the closet is especially difficult when it comes to the workplace, where homophobia is accepted and rampant.

As with many social issues, Korea's attitude towards sexual minorities is moored in its tradition of Confucianism, which prioritizes continuation of the family line.

The attitude was so pervasive that for years, many people were unaware that gays existed. While economic development and democratization in Korea triggered discourse on human rights, LGBT people were long left out the conversation.

Ironically, LGBT rights are a lynchpin for Korea’s reputation on human rights. Though leaders would no doubt like to posit Korea as a middle-power leader in human rights, this is unlikely to happen until the country passes anti-discrimination legislation that would protect all minorities. However, passage of such a bill has long been blocked due to right-wing Christian groups, who oppose the inclusion of sexual minorities

While the political realm may be stymied, SOPA’s recognition shows that other quarters of society are open to conversation on the matter. We hope that dialogue soon translates to concerted efforts to protect all people.

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