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North Korean Gay Defector Becomes LGBT Activist

Photo of Pride Parade in South Korea courtesy of AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

For 40 years, Jang Yeong-jin did not even know gay people existed—that is just how removed North Korean society can be.

"[It] is a tragedy to live without knowing that you are gay," Jang Yeong-jin told The Guardian when asked to discuss his life in North Korea before he fleed south. Yeong-jin made a daring escape to South Korea almost 20 years ago, after his claustrophobic life in the North made him feel he had no other alternative. "I thought if I die, I die. I was that desperate," said Yeong-jin. "Life without hope is not worth living, I thought."

Yeong-jin joined the military before he turned 20, spent a decade mainly in the company of other men in military service, and married a woman soon thereafter. But he knew something was missing, he just didn't know what. About two years after arriving in South Korea, Yeong-jin happened upon a picture of two men kissing in a magazine. At age 40, he finally figured out the missing piece of his life: he is, and has always been, gay. It was something he simply never knew existed--that is just how removed North Korean society can be.

The moment was epiphanic. Yeong-jin told the Korean Herald. "It gave me hope that I can love someone and be loved." With a memoir entitled Mark of Red Honor published last year, the 57-year-old is now the only openly gay North Korean defector living in the South. Now, Yeong-jin openly shares his feelings on the North Korean regime and its social impact, calling the Korean Central News Agency "morons" after they published an article filled with homophobic slurs against Michael Kirby, author of a UN report about human rights in the DPRK.

But for Yeong-jin, life in a more open society is not necessarily easy. He says he feels pulled in many different directions by the gay rights movement in South Korea, which is "highly politicized." In order to maintain his own independent voice, he hopes to continue his career as a writer, sharing his novel experience and perspective with other LGBT Koreans and the world.

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