A City Upon A Homo Hill

The Premonition of AIDS in South Korea

While major newspapers have marked 1985 as the beginning of South Korean AIDS history, news of AIDS had already arrived South Korea by 1982. However, AIDS received incredibly low attention from Korean media until three years later. On December 1982, the first news regarding AIDS arrived in Korea. The initial article, however, lacked any link between homosexuality and AIDS. It only revealed that “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, a disease that destroys the human body’s immune system and may be fatal, can be spread through blood transfusions.”“AIDS Infection Through Blood Transfusion,” Maeil Kyungje, December 18, 1982, sec. IT/Science, 9, Naver News Library.

While articles that related homosexuality with AIDS eventually appeared in early 1983, they largely focused on the foreign aspect of the disease. Mentioning that “in New York and California, AIDS appears amongst homosexuals, Haitian immigrants… and blood transfusion patients” Korean media portrayed AIDS as a disease that was geographically far removed from South Korea.“AIDS Found Amongst Homosexuals in America, Patients’ Immune System Compromised,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, January 6, 1983, sec. Society, 4, Naver News Library.

Going further, the media wielded a racialist argument to claim that “AIDS is not a disease that is so dangerous to Koreans” because “there are only four Asian patients affected by AIDS.”“Listening to Professor Saphai, an American Therapist,” Dong-A Ilbo, October 13, 1983, sec. Society, 7, Naver News Library.

To be Asian, then, was to be resilient to AIDS, while non-Asians were not. Because so few Asians had AIDS, the articles implied, there was also no particular reason to worry about Korean homosexuals having AIDS as well.

The lack of interest on AIDS in South Korea was so profound that newspapers began to publish articles regarding Koreans’ own apathy towards the disease. One article observed that “in [Korea], no one is researching this new disease or has any interest in it whatsoever.”“The World Trembles Before the New Disease,” Dong-A Ilbo, August 2, 1983, sec. Society, 7, Naver News Library.

The state of affairs was such that not only Korean civilians, but also Korean medical researchers were nonchalant about the thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths in the United States, their most significant ally both militarily and economically. “While over twenty countries have reported AIDS patients,” another article claimed, “thankfully, as of… now, South Korea has none.”“Medically Incomprehensible… The Emergency Diagnosis of the Phenomenon, AIDS. The Terror That Reduces the U.S. To Tears,” Dong-A Ilbo, August 15, 1983, sec. Society, 3, Naver News Library.

Rather than supporting the international effort to analyze AIDS, South Korea seems to have found comfort in the fact that they were currently devoid of AIDS.

While newspapers did contain articles on AIDS, they focused primarily on the medical and the scientific aspects of the disease. Even Korean journalists seemed unconcerned about the global status of AIDS. The majority of articles on AIDS were sourced from United Press International“Sex Club Bathhouse Curtailed,” Dong-A Ilbo, October 13, 1984, sec. Politics, 4.

, Associated Press“AIDS Vaccine to Be Developed Within 2-3 Years; American Research Team Finds Success in Separating Virus,” Dong-A Ilbo, April 24, 1984, sec. IT/Science, 11.

, Reuters“AIDS Source Found,” Maeil Kyungje, June 14, 1984, sec. Society, 4.

, and Agence France-Presse.“AIDS ‘Will Spread in A Few Years’ to Heterosexuals,” Dong-A Ilbo, September 3, 1984, sec. Society, 4.

There were no Korean editorials warning the imminent dangers of AIDS to all nations, including South Korea. If anything, a Korean health columnist noticed that Korean “adolescents have not even heard of this terrifying sexual disease called AIDS.”Dae-hui Kwak, “Kwak Dae-hui Health Column #13: Expansion of Sexual Diseases’ Territory,” Maeil Kyungje, June 23, 1984, sec. Society, 9.

This generally unconcerned sentiment reverberated throughout the early 1980s and was one of the reasons why the media and fans could label pop stars as homo without the vilifying them as being an AIDS carrier.Lee, “Han Gyu-cheol: ‘What Do You Mean, I’m Homo,’” Sunday Seoul, September 9, 1984, 34, Serial Publications Room, National Library of Korea.

Due to this indifferent attitude, the media’s portrayal of Korean homosexuality as removed from AIDS in the early 1980s could not help but trans drastically once the Korean AIDS crisis began in late 1985.