On March 31, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld a 1962 law describing homosexual activity between two consenting adults as reciprocal rape, reversing on appeal a 2010 decision by a military court declaring the law to be unconstitutional. The military court held that homosexuality was strictly a personal issue and not subject to persecution, whereas the Constitutional Court cited concern with discipline throughout the South Korean military. Specifically, the Constitutional Court was concerned with superiors harassing subordinates if homosexual behavior were allowed.
The fight for allowing open service within South Korean ranks is a bit different from the fight in the U.S. South Korean youth are forced into mandatory conscription with no recognition of conscientious objection, so recruiting shortages are not a driving issue. In fact, not fulfilling one’s military obligation by taking advantage of various deferrals or work-arounds is seen as a sign of cowardice, in many cases severely limiting one’s societal rise. When asked about their sexual orientation in pre-service psychological questioning, many South Koreans opt to lie and endure three years of silence rather than risk social ostracization.
The South Korean gay rights movement overall is about thirty to forty years behind its U.S. counterpart. The first gay South Korean magazine just started printing in 1998, gay themed clubs are mostly restricted to a single avenue in Seoul, and mainstream television is just beginning to incorporate openly gay characters. One thing to consider, however, is the influence of social media on South Korean social progression, as well as South Korea’s overall fast-track pace in catching up to the West. What results is a late but quickly evolving gay rights movement that is more defined by generation than overall societal views.
Because LGBT acceptance in South Korea is largely generational and military service is mandatory, the lower enlisted will naturally consist of non-military careerists who will likely be tolerant of the gay rights movement, while the career upper-enlisted and officer ranks will more often consist of those with homophobic views. So it is no surprise that the Constitutional Court’s view of possible disarray was framed in the context of superior-subordinate relationships, when the U.S. concept of detriment to unit cohesion more focused on peer-to-peer relationships.
The battle for open service within the South Korean military has been ongoing for quite a few years now. The current threat to watch for in South Korean politics is a more overt law discouraging open service in response to the growing LGBT rights movement in South Korea, similar to the situation in the U.S. in 1993, which resulted in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The hope is that progress in South Korea will maintain its current pace so that the result will not be further discrimination codified into law. Regardless, this is an interesting situation to watch, especially while the U.S. military undergoes its own transition toward a policy of open and honest service.