South Korea, a Difficult Place for Queers and Conscientious Objectors

South Korea is a conservative country with strong patriarchal and heteronormative traditions, where queers and conscientious objectors have difficulty fitting in. Especially because the South Korea military maintains a conscription system, the military strongly influences the way in which Korean men's gender identity is shaped. “Masculinity” is something that I don't have, but in the conservative South Korean society people find it odd and make queers like me feel ashamed and embarrassed - which often leads us to blame ourselves for not being able to satisfy society's criteria of normality. It's a kind of “false consciousnes”. Besides the harsh treatment of sexual minorities in the Korean military, the attacks on and social stigma attached to conscientious objectors who refuse to go into the army are quite serious. Queers remain conflicted with the military whether they accept it or not.

Family Trouble

In South Korea, refusing military conscription puts you in jail for one-and-a-half years, and you get to face social prejudices and exclusion. The military in South Korea is considered natural, like the air or water, so questioning or objecting to the military is virtually forbidden. Hence conscientious objectors have a hard time receiving support from their families. Queers also face a similar situation, since coming out of the closet is still not well received in most of the conservative Korean families that consider their children's homosexuality somewhat akin to crimes. 
 

Militarism, nationalism, gender

It could be said that many Korean men live with two kinds of national trauma, namely the colonial experience which hurt their pride, and the sense of deprivation due to their military service. That is to say, nationalism and gender are in a way the points where the contradictions and problems within Korean society are most clearly seen. South Korea is a country with very strong nationalism, heterosexuality, male chauvinism, and militarism. People also think that men become real men only after they finish military service. This vicious circle of militarism and masculinity functions as a device to oppress social minorities and many other marginal social discourses. Korean men who have finished their military service often project their sense of deprivation onto less powerful groups and social minorities - such as women, queers, and conscientious objectors.

Also, it is hard to find a place where the discrepancy between rich and poor is greater than South Korea. The military is a place that conceals and blocks class inequality and wealth discrepancy. While the majority of Korean men live lives unequal to the small wealthy class, because they consider the military a place where every man must serve equally, the military functions as a device to hide such inequality. Naturally, Korean men show sensitive reactions to alternative discourses which are opposed to the current military system. They tend to turn violent and produce hate messages when they run into news reports about someone evading or refusing military service.
 

Still hoping for a better future

Even now, there are many people who feel ill at ease with their own gender and sexuality. There are also people who are in prison to uphold their conscience. If Korean society does not want to appear a brutal society, such violence must disappear. Although things are still quite rough in Korea, a number of civil rights organisations, including gay or queer rights organisations, continue to fight against injustice in South Korea. In particular, World Without War has continued to support and organise legislative movements for conscientious objectors for more than ten years. While there still remain many hurdles for us living in Korea, we are at the same time fortunate to have many comrades and friends who are with us. Despite the conservative atmosphere in our society, queers and conscientious objectors in Korea continue to fight by allying with one another.

Yu Min-Seok, Conscientious Objector
e-mail: dreamsnail@naver.com

Yu Min-Seok is a conscientious objector and a member of World Without War.