- Julie Yoonnyung Lee
- BBC Korea
The unique story of North Korea’s only openly homosexual defector was covered by the international press when he published his autobiography. Now, 25 years after fleeing her country, she tells the BBC about her plans to marry her American boyfriend.
Jang Yeong-jin had never seemed attractive to women. But it wasn’t until her wedding night, at age 27, that this made her life more difficult.
Jang felt intensely uncomfortable. “I couldn’t put a finger on my wife“, remember.
Although the couple ultimately consummated their marriage, the sex was rare.
Four years later, his wife still did not get pregnant, and one of Jang’s brothers began to find out. Jang admitted that he had never been attracted to a woman, and his brother quickly sent him to the doctor.
“I went to many hospitals in North Korea because i thought i had a problem“.
It never occurred to Jang, or his family, that there might be another reason for his lack of interest in his wife.
“Homosexuality is not a concept in North Korea,” he says.
If someone is seen running to greet a friend of the same sex, they are assumed to be good friends. In fact, adults of the same gender are often seen holding hands on the street, he explains.
“North Korea is a totalitarian society. We have a lot of community life, so it’s normal for us.”
Looking back, Jang thinks that He was not the only one misunderstood.
When he was admitted to the hospital for a month for medical tests, he met other patients.
“I found that many had had a similar experience: men who could not feel anything towards a woman.”
But exploring what they really felt was almost impossible.
“In North Korea, if a man says he doesn’t like a woman, people think he’s sick.”
A man Jang had served with in the military visited him several times after he was discharged. He confided that their wedding night had also been a disaster and that he couldn’t even hold his wife’s hand.
“I think it was someone like me,” Jang muses.
Park Jeong-Won, a law professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, is not aware of any explicit laws in North Korea against gay relationships.
But he adds that state laws against extramarital affairs and violation of social mores would likely be used to prosecute any gay sex act.
Another scholar in Seoul, Kim Seok-hyang, has interviewed dozens of defectors about this, and says that none had ever heard speak on the concept of homosexuality.
“When I asked them about homosexuality, they had a hard time understanding. So I had to explain it to each person,” says Kim, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Women’s University.
All of the defectors confessed that if they were caught exploring same-sex relationships, they would be ostracized, possibly even executed.
Jang was released with a clean medical record. All the medical tests requested by his brother showed that he had nothing wrong.
The decision to leave
On the other hand, Jang’s wife was still unhappy.
“I was thinking: ‘I should let this person go. We should find a way to be happy,'” says the defector.
Jang filed for divorce. However, this process not easy in North Korea. Court permission is required, and they prioritize the family unit, says law professor Park Jeong-Won.
They only authorize a separation if the marriage is seen as a threat to the country’s ideology, he explains.
It was then that Jang realized that he only had the option to flee, to leave North Korea. This would automatically annul his marriage and allow his wife to remarry.
But the catalyst for his decision was a visit from Jang’s best friend, a man named Seoncheol.
They had grown up together in the northern town of Chongjin. They were very close, and slept in the same bed when one stayed at each other’s house during childhood.
But when they grew up Jang’s feelings for Seoncheol intensified.
“I really liked Seoncheol very much. I still dream about him.”
Sometimes Seoncheol would visit him for dinner, and one night, worried about how late it had gotten, Jang persuaded Seocheol to stay the night.
A few hours later, Jang found himself getting out of his own bed and approaching Seoncheol. He was devastated when his sleeping friend didn’t even move.
“I don’t know exactly what I wanted from him, maybe just for him to hold me tight,” says Jang.
That moment made him feel that his life in North Korea had come to an end.
Jang arrived in South Korea in April 1997 crawling through the mine-filled demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two nations after his initial route stranded him in China.
Crossing the DMZ is so risky and infrequent that his escape made headlines in the south.
The dynamics in Seoul were very different from those in North Korea, but even here Jang’s case puzzled South Korean officials.
All North Korean defectors undergo several weeks of mandatory interrogation by the South Korean Intelligence Service (NIS) to verify that they are not spies.
Jang was interrogated during more than five months because he was reluctant to explain the real reason he defected.
When he finally admitted that he was simply not attracted to his wife, he was allowed to stay, but once again it was sent to the doctor.
“NIS officials told me there must be some reason why I didn’t like women.”
At that time, even in the South there was little awareness of different sexual orientations. Several doctors recommended that she seek psychological help, but she ignored their advice.
Discovery and disappointment
Then, in the spring of 1998, 13 months after arriving in South Korea, Jang opened a magazine to read an interview he gave about his defection.
Turning the page, he discovered an article about gay men coming out of the closet, with a scene from an American movie showing two men kissing on a bed.
There he became convinced that he was also a homosexual.
“When I saw that, I knew right away that he was that kind of person. That’s why I didn’t like women.”
That revelation transformed the life of Jang, who became a regular at gay bars in Seoul.
But years later, this new world exposed Jang to a devastating fraud.
In 2004, the owner of one of Jang’s favorite bars introduced him to a flight attendant.
They dated for three months and Jang fell in love.
The flight attendant asked Jang to move in together, but explained that since he lived with his stepfather, they had to buy a bigger house first.
Jang moved out of his rented apartment and gave him $ 82,000 of his savings and all of his belongings.
She never saw him again. He went to the police station every day for two weeks until they told him to give up.
Jang He never thought that someone could deceive him in this way.
“In North Korea we have a very controlled life. If I had said that someone had cheated me, the party would have tracked down and punished him harshly.”
Jang became ill and was hospitalized for a month. Think it was a product of stress. This meant losing his job in a factory. As a result, he was left without money, homeless and unemployed.
Little by little he was rebuilding his life. He got a job as a cleaner, saved to rent a new house, and began writing in his spare time.
As a child he once won a writing contest, but then students were only required to write to honor the North Korean regime.
Now finally Jang could write whatever he wanted. His autobiography A Mark of Red Honor (“The mark of red honor”) was published in 2015.
It took a long time before Jang risked going on a date. Last year, aged 62, Jang met Ming-su, a restaurant owner, on a dating site.
Four months later, Jang traveled to the nation he knew as “the country of wolves,” Pyongyang’s derogatory term for the United States.
But when Jang saw Min-su waiting for him in the arrivals hall, his heart sank. Min-su was wearing shorts and a cap, and Jang says that this disappointed him.
“Seeing how he dressed, I assumed he was a rude and rude man“, says Jang.
The coronavirus lockdown gave them space to get to know each other better, drinking wine and organizing picnics.
“The more I got to know him, the more I could see his good character. Although he is eight years my junior, he is the type of person who cares about others first.”
After two months, Min-su decided to propose to her.
Now Jang is finalizing his documents to prove that his marriage in North Korea is over and they hope to get married later this year.
“I always felt scared, sad and lonely when I lived alone. I am very introverted and sensitive, but he is an optimistic person. We are good for each other,” he says.
But despite her newfound happiness, Jang remains haunted by the impact his defection had on his family.
Several of his relatives were exiled to a remote village in the frozen north, a brutal fate for those whose relatives are perceived as disloyal to the regime. Six of his relatives died of hunger and disease, including his mother and four of his siblings.
Jang says the only way he can deal with that guilt is by writing.
“Whenever I think of my family it is very painful for me, so I decided to write. I think it is the only way I can compensate him,” he reflects.
But at least it comforts him that his decision to leave North Korea gave his wife new opportunities. He heard that he had remarried.
“I always thought she was very talented, so I was very happy for her.”
And he says he hopes to expand his horizons once coronavirus restrictions are relaxed and wants to visit Washington, a half-hour drive away, with Min-su.
“I heard there are a lot of gay bars there. I want to go to those bars with him.”
Meanwhile, he says he enjoys the quiet of the suburbs, which he describes as being in a “fairy tale.”
Min-su is a fake name.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.