North Korea’s ‘only openly gay defector’ finds love


Jang Yeong-jin’s remarkable story as North Korea’s only openly gay defector was covered by the international media after he published his autobiography. Now, almost a quarter of a century after fleeing the country, he tells the BBC that he plans to marry his American boyfriend. Jang Yeong-jin had never found women attractive. But it wasn’t until his wedding night, aged 27, that this made his life difficult. Jang felt intensely uncomfortable. “I couldn’t lay a finger on my wife,” he recalls. Although the couple did eventually consummate their marriage, sex was rare. Four years later – his wife still not pregnant – one of Jang’s brothers began to quiz him. Jang admitted he had never been aroused by the opposite sex, and his brother promptly sent him to a doctor. “I went to so many hospitals in North Korea because we thought that I had some sort of physical problem.” It never occurred to Jang, or his family, that there could be another reason for his lack of interest. Jang now thinks his experience of being misunderstood was by no means unique. At one point, Jang was admitted to hospital for a month of tests and got to know some of the other patients. “I figured out many of them had a similar experience to me – people who could not feel anything towards women.” But articulating, or exploring, what it was they did feel, was likely to have been impossible without a frame of reference. “In North Korea, if a man says he doesn’t like a woman, people [just] think he’s unwell.” One man Jang had served with in the military visited him several times after they were discharged. He confided that his wedding night, too, had been a disaster – he couldn’t bring himself to even hold his wife’s hand. “I think he was also someone like me,” reflects Jang. Park Jeong-Won, a law professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, says that he is not aware of any explicit North Korean law against gay and lesbian relationships. But he adds that the state’s laws against extramarital relations and breaching social mores would probably be co-opted into prosecuting any gay sexual act.

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