|A rainbow flag representing LGBTQ people is carried by participants of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival during the event on June 1. Yonhap|
By Park Ji-won
Speculation is growing as to whether South Korea's political parties will deal with LGBTQ issues during the general election in April next year amid public participation from liberals and opposition from conservatives.
On June 1, the main event of the 20th Seoul Queer Culture Festival was held in central Seoul with approximately 150,000 participants, a record number, according its organizers. Some 80 booths were operated by various groups including Hong Kong and Japan gay rights organizations and several embassies including those from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Ambassadors to South Korea from the U.K., Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Norway and the U.S. jointly wrote a column to endorse the festival and the minorities' human rights for the first time since the event started.
Liberal political parties such as the Justice Party and the Green Party Korea also had booths to promote their gay-friendly policies. A group of members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) also participated in the event including Rep. Keum Tae-sup, who has been publicly supporting LGBTQ rights. The DPK's engagement was the first of its kind, bringing them into the media spotlight.
|Rep. Keum Tae-sup of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea participates in the Seoul Queer Culture Festival with DPK members, June 1. Courtesy of Keum Tae-sup|
After participating in the event, Keum urged people to respect people's diversity and called on the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) to join the event and stop promoting hatred of the LGBTQ community.
"There are LGBTQ people in the LKP as well. I assume that there are many LKP people who agree with the meaning of the festival. I hope I can meet LKP members at the event next year," he wrote on Facebook, June 1.
Stressing that lawmakers are discussing ways to pass an anti-discrimination law at the National Assembly, he said during a radio interview June 4: "It is important to legislate, but it is also important to change our culture and way of thinking so that people can respect diversity and admit we are all different."
LKP opposes, DPK remains silent
While many South Koreans have grown supportive of gay rights, most political parties are hesitant to speak out on the matter. This is partly because they don't want to lose "Christian" supporters who hold significant power in the political circle here, insiders point out, where sexual minorities are stigmatized and struggle for political representation.
LKP members released a series of homophobic statements about the event and made it clear that the party is opposed to any legal rights for LGBTQ people.
LKP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn, a practicing Christian, said May 17, "Personally, I oppose homosexuality. From a political point of view, I think we should not accept homosexuality. The event, which is hard to understand, has been held for decades."
Regarding the DPK members' participation in the Seoul Queer Culture Festival, Rep. Min Kyung-wook, a spokesman of the LKP openly called the event "exhibitionistic" and claimed the party should "come out" as a "queer" party and decide its position on the matter.
Their remarks have prompted controversy among political parties over their appropriateness. Other political parties including the liberal Justice Party, condemned the LKP for making such hateful remarks against minorities, urging it to stop.
The LKP is likely taking such a strategic move to pander to its conservative voters, many of them Christians, by demonizing the members of the queer community.
The number of Christians in South Korea is significant. The Korean National Association of Christian Pastors released results of a survey of 5,000 adults in December 2017 that showed 20.2 percent reported themselves as Protestant while 19.6 percent and 6.4 percent were Buddhist and Catholic, respectively.
The South Korean Constitution clearly stipulates the separation of church and state, however, this is not strictly adhered to. Jun Gwang-hun, a pastor and chief of the Christian Council of Korea, one of the leading Christian organizations, was caught in a controversy last week for publicly making political remarks, asking President Moon Jae-in to step down for "forcing people" to accept the North Korean communist regime. He repeated the remarks Saturday, pledging to protest against President Moon until he steps down.
Insiders say that the conservative party is paying attention to reassure conservative supporters, a large group of whom are Christians, and gain their support by making such hateful declarations against sexual minorities before the general election in April 2020.
"Most Christians are conservative and oppose homosexuality. So they tend to endorse politicians who voice those opinions," a political source said.
"The LKP, which is supported by conservative voters, will continue to use this hateful rhetoric during the upcoming election campaign."
In fact, it has been one of the easiest ways for the LKP to attract conservative voters and criticize the DPK. Whenever politicians, mainly LKP members, bring up LGBTQ issues, it becomes a huge controversy no matter what they say.
Meanwhile, the DPK has been taking a passive stance on the rights of sexual minorities, which is also being targeted by the LKP for being "vague" toward homosexuals. In April 2017, then DPK presidential candidate Moon was criticized by gay rights activists for his remarks "opposing" gay people during a television debate with other presidential candidates.
It was part of LKP candidate Hong Joon-pyo's strategic move to question Moon on gay issues and involve him in the agenda. Moon's remarks negatively influenced the LGBTQ community, helping then Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jeung, who had been openly supportive of gay rights, to attract gay voters.
The LGBTQ issue became a topic of public debate during that presidential campaign, however, it had largely been off the political radar since then.
Following 2008, when the New Progressive Party's Choi Hyun-sook came out as lesbian in announcing her bid for a candidacy in the general election, there has not been a single openly gay candidate.
Insiders suggest that the DPK is intentionally avoiding talking about the issue before the general election as it will not be helpful for it politically.
"The DPK is trying not to politicize LGBTQ issues in order to win Christian voters," a party member said.
"Even lawmakers who worked for human rights organizations declined to comment on the matter in order not to influence their campaign before the general election."
Recent surveys show that the approval rating for the LKP is reaching around 30 percent, while that of the DPK is 40 percent, possibly meaning there is no room for the DPK to bring up controversial issues before the election. The DPK holds 128 seats while the LKP has 113 seats in the National Assembly.
Keum expressed regret over the DPK not actively engaging in gay issues.
"We are working based on liberal values. If we ignore them, then minorities have no place to go to claim their rights."
Keum added that the South should pass an anti-discrimination law so that people can respect others and eliminate such hateful speeches as made by the LKP's Min.