Korea – Hermits, Closets and an Organ
When we think of Korea today, most can pinpoint just three things – the Korean War, the first west/communist engagement after World War 2; the successful summer Olympics of 1988 which was supposed to herald the end of South Korea’s military dictatorship (this actually ended five years later) and the more recent Winter Olympics in 2018; and inevitably K-Pop! Yes, I know many have heard of kimchi, but I wonder how many have actually bothered to taste it!
With western powers having such an influence in many other parts of Asia, it is perhaps surprising that they had relatively little impact on Korea, at least until the outbreak of the Korean War. It was first China and then Japan which were to be the major influences on Korean society and the development of Korean culture. Hardly surprising really, as it is a peninsula connected to China and just a short sail from the south west of Japan. For centuries the Kingdom of Korea paid tributes to the ruling Chinese Emperors to acknowledge their titular supremacy. Buddhism and later Confucianism arrived through China.
There were three great periods of Korean history, similar to the Dynasties which ruled China. The Silla assumed power in 57 BC and finally unified the peninsula in 668 AD. It and lasted until 935. The Koryŏ Dynasty reigned from 918 to 1392, and it is from this Dynasty that the name Korea is derived. Finally the Chosun Dynasty from 1392 until 1910. Disastrous invasions by the Japanese and later by the Manchus of Northeast Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries led to Korea being all but closed off from the influence of other countries, rather as the Shogunate had done in Japan. For 250 years the country largely enjoyed peace. Those westerners who happened to visit in the 19th century encountered what they termed a “hermit” Kingdom
Statue of King Sejong The Great (1418-1450), Korea’s Most Revered King from the Chosun Dynasty – copyright Getty Images
With China disintegrating from within and western powers annexing considerable chunks of its coastline during the 19th century, so greedy eyes turned on Korea where the possibilities for trade seemed too good to miss. But Japan had beaten them to the door and the Japanese were already well entrenched in the country. In 1910 it annexed Korea outright as one of its East Asian colonies, inflicting on its people an often brutal and repressive regime.
Japanese Troops in Korea
During its three main Dynasties, homosexual activity was far from uncommon at court. During the Silla Dynasty, King Hyegong was known for his adventures with other men. He was even described as “a man by appearance but a woman by nature.” One group of his elite warriors were the Hwarang or ‘Flower Boys’, so called because of their homoeroticism and femininity. During the later Koryŏ Dynasty, King Mokjong and King Gongmin are both on record as having several male lovers. When his wife died, Gongmin even went so far as to create a Ministry whose sole purpose was to seek out and recruit young men from all over the country to serve at his Court. His sexual partners were called “little brother attendants”! King Chungseon is known to have had several long-term relationships with other men.
In the Chosun era, it was members of the nobility who frequently engaged in same-sex relationships. As in Japan, travelling theatre groups developed providing various types of entertainment. Often these included under-aged “beautiful boys” and the entertainment, which included music, songs, masked dance, elements of circus and puppetry, would also add graphic representations of same-sex couplings. The troupes were composed of two distinct groups: the Sutdongmo and Yeodongmo – perhaps best translated today as butch and queens!
Yet Confucianism was spreading and along with it the obedience to social order and the family unit. Homosexuality began a gradual process of being frowned upon and viewed as a disturbance to the natural order of life. Eventually it was regarded as immoral and deviant. Having the Japanese as the colonial power did nothing to change matters. Indeed, it probably made them worse.
There is no point here going over the origins and events of the Korean War in 1951. Following its end and the inconclusive peace, the Americans re-installed the staunch anti-communist Syngman Rhee as President. Rhee turned out to be an authoritarian dictator whose rule was characterised by political repression and endless corruption. A self-righteous Christian convinced of his indispensability, Rhee considered those criticising him as guilty of treason. Attacked on many sides, he was finally brought down as a result of a student revolt in 1960. Rhee was followed by three Presidents whose total term in office was less than two months! Soon the generals took charge.
When I first visited Korea in 1982 and followed that with several visits during the rest of that decade, I did not like Seoul at all. For business reasons I had to stay at a hotel not far from the University district and always seemed to arrive after a long protest against martial law. Tear gas still hung in the air and it was not pleasant. The gay guide Spartacus led me to one gay bar, but it was small, dingy and the customers were mostly in their 40s and 50s. There were no gay saunas but plenty of public bathhouses. One near the centre was supposed to be gay-friendly. It took me two days of walking up and down various streets to try and locate it. When I did I found it was a mixture of a bath house and a massage establishment with big, burly attendants ready to slam you down on a table and start to scrub as though with sandpaper. Not pleasant and I did not feel better after it!
Typical Korean Bath House Today with Older Clientele
There was a steam room and a hot bath, but no action. This took place upstairs in a largish room designed as though for Hobbits for you had to bend down when walking around. Along two walls were individual bed units to relax after the downstairs scrubbing. With the partitions being only inches high, wandering hands became the norm, but merely for touching, feeling and perhaps a little more. This was nothing like the Japanese saunas of then – and still now – where in near darkness huge mattresses would be against each wall with all manner of couplings taking place and many attempting to watch if they so wished.
Nightlife in those days was severely restricted by the midnight curfew. Anyone caught on the streets between midnight and 6:00 am was liable to be shot. After all, the military dictatorship was still fearful of North Korea. Just months after I arrived in Asia, President Park had been shot dead by one of his bodyguards. In 1983 there was an assassination attempt against President Chun on a visit to Rangoon. Although he survived, four of his senior Ministers were killed. In 1987 the North placed bombs aboard a Korean Air flight which exploded in mid-air over the Andaman Sea as it was approaching Bangkok. Anyone seeking male company in Seoul around that time did not find it easy.
BTS has Become the First Truly Global K-Pop Band
As South Korea has opened up to western thoughts and ideas, so it has developed as an economically wealthy country which became one of the four Asian tigers along with Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet, for all its wealth, for all the new glitzy downtown bars and clubs in Seoul catering to gay men and women, despite the worldwide popularity of the androgynous K-Pop phenomenon with cute guy groups and girl groups all with their members having had the same plastic surgery to ensure they look almost the same, South Korea remains one of Asia’s most conservative societies. It is almost as though the country bought into the Japanese culture of having no square pegs in round holes. If you don’t fit in, you are hammered down until you do. Even today most gay Koreans remain in their closets, afraid that coming out will affect their family, their friendships, their place in society and their jobs. Of course, that’s a generalisation, and the LGBT movement is certainly making some progress. But it is slow.
Spot the Difference – Despite Being Chosen as the Best K-Pop Group of 2017, the 11 Member Wanna One died after only 17 months.
A quick word about North Korea. Extraordinary though it may seem, the founder of the Kim Dynasty which continues to rule North Korea since partition owes a considerable debt to, of all people, Christian missionaries. Kim Il Sung’s maternal grandfather was a Protestant Minister. His father was an elder in a Presbyterian Church and the family was active in the religious community. If his biographers can be believed, the young dictator-to-be even played the organ in his father’s church.
So, despite the closed-door policy, some western missionaries had eventually been permitted to enter the country in the late 1800s. American missionaries established Protestantism starting around 1884. But religion as such only began to take off after World War 2 when the country was freed from Japanese occupation. By 1991 it was estimated that 25% of all Koreans were members of Christian churches. Anyone flying into the old Kimpo airport after dark in the 1980s and 1990s would have been as surprised as I to see so many buildings adorned with brightly lit crosses. The influence of the various churches and sects has grown so much that no country in the world apart from the United States provides more Christian missionaries to save souls around the world.
How odd to think that it was the west which for centuries had sent its missionaries into Asia to change traditional thinking! Now it is Asia attempting to do the same for the rest of the world!
When I consider homosexual activity in earlier centuries in East Asia, the lack of written evidence results in our knowing almost exclusively about the leaders and their elites. The temptation is to assume there must have been a trickle down effect. Apart from early Hindu India where its openness to the joy of sex in all its varieties must have been part of general everyday life, we just do not know. It is further tempting to assume that as Hindu traders spread through East Asia and established its religion, they must surely have brought with them at least some of its ideas of sexual freedom. What is clear is that unfettered by the moral opprobrium that constrained – or concealed – male/male relationships elsewhere in the so-called civilised world, homosexuality certainly thrived in some social groupings in many parts of Asia prior to the arrival of western traders, colonisers and missionaries. In tandem with their superior force and their more blinkered and repressed attitude to sex, the utter certainty that their religions gave them the moral high ground greatly changed and shaped those earlier accepted East Asian views on homosexuality.
In that respect, though, is there really much difference between Asia’s more recent rulers and the anti-dick cover-up Popes of old? Sadly I think not.
Anything and everything about gay life anywhere in the world, especially Asia, other than Thailand.
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Thanks for this series of posts
I agree. Fascinating reading.