A City Upon A Homo Hill

A Brief Introduction to the 1980s Korean Gay History

The history of South Korea is one born from the ideological conflicts and contradictions of the Cold War. On one hand, South Korea has acted and continues to act as the vanguard of the Western Bloc in its attempt to secure an anti-Communist position in East Asia. On the other, military juntas have both formally and informally dominated the South Korean government for much of its modern existence. Under the façade of American democracy, these autocrats exerted martial order over their citizens and centralized their authority while spurring a process of rapid Westernization from late 1950s onwards. During these infantile years of this seemingly paradoxical state, the regime of President Park Chung-hee during the post-Second Republic (1961-1963), the Third Republic (1963-1972), and the Fourth Republic (1972-1981) eras left a profound impact on both the economic and the cultural development of a largely agrarian nation.

In the span of less than two decades, Park’s authoritarian rule spurred rapid reconstruction and development of the Korean economy. To achieve this growth, Park organized the South Korean state under the twin banners of “construction” (geonseol) and “national defense” (gukbang), the dual axes of militarism and economic development.Jin-kyung Lee, “Surrogate Military, Subimperialism, and Masculinity: South Korea in the Vietnam War, 1965–73,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 17, no. 3 (2009): 657.

From its first “farewell ceremony” in 1965 to the last “welcome ceremony” in 1973, the state government staged numerous public ceremonies for sending Korean soldiers off to and welcoming them back from Vietnam.Ibid.

These ceremonies established a national mission to support the United States, South Vietnam, Philippines, and their anti-Communist allies. In addition to these effects, these ceremonies also had an indelible impact in militarizing the lives of the South Korean people.

These public spectacles were physically held in, but not solely localized to, Seoul. Through the use of mass communication and technology, these events became visible beyond the physical boundaries of Seoul. Broadcast on the radio and the television, these ceremonies mobilized tens of thousands of students and citizens throughout the country.Jin-kyung Lee, “Surrogate Military, Subimperialism, and Masculinity: South Korea in the Vietnam War, 1965–73,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 17, no. 3 (2009): 659.

As would be expected with governmental ceremonies, executive and legislative dignitaries delivered rhetorical speeches to muster the citizens’ efforts in supporting their troops. These ceremonies also included entertainers that would offer flower wreathes to the soldiers marching through the streets of downtown Seoul.Ibid.

These ceremonies hence had the effects of both politicizing their constituent citizens and manipulating the cultural zeitgeist of their time. In addition, Park made explicit connections between South Korea’s military deployment to Vietnam and ethnonational masculinity at these publicity broadcasts.Ibid.

Calling the troops “descendants of Hwarang,” an elite male youth corps of a pre-modern dynasty, Park urged them to “demonstrate the bravery of Korean manhood to the world.”Ibid.

The dramatic military-masculine image, with its close linkages to the state, race, anti-Communism, and developmentalism, established itself as a major apparatus of “visual domination” for the South Korean state throughout Park’s regime and beyond.Ibid.

This civil military-masculine society neither criminalized nor legalized homosexuality. On a fundamental level, none of the ten iterations of the South Korean Constitution have mentioned homosexuality in any way, shape, or form.“Constitution of the Republic of Korea,” n.d., http://korea.assembly.go.kr/res/low_01_read.jsp?boardid=1000000035.

Nor has the South Korean legislature either criminalized homosexuality nor instituted sodomy laws in its Civil Penal Code.The Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, “Civil Penal Code,” April 5, 2013, http://www.law.go.kr/lsInfoP.do?lsiSeq=138767#0000.

For this reason, the unregulated nature of male homosexuality in South Korea has provided sexual minorities a certain level of private freedom to conduct their own sexual matters. So long, that is, as the private remained private, the government did not impose any restrictions or interfere with activities in the bedroom. Consequently, the legality of same-sex sexual activities was far from public’s eye and active debate in South Korea.