While homosexuality is not outlawed per se in South Korea, LGBT rights is still a sensitive topic in a country where, in certain contexts, being gay can even lead to criminal prosecution.
In 2013, Dave Kim (Kim Seung-hwan), a producer at LGBT film production and distribution company Rainbow Factory, wed his long-term partner Kim Jho Gwang-soo, in a ceremony held on a bridge above Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon stream. Many were there to celebrate, many to look on curiously, and some were there to protest — one person even attempted to throw a mix of bean paste and feces at the gathering, claiming God had told him to do so.
Their same-sex marriage has often been described as the first of its kind in South Korea, although it’s not clear whether undisclosed precedents exist. Since tying the knot (albeit without legal recognition), Kim and husband Kim Jho have been relentlessly pursuing the right to marry legally, having had their marriage application rejected twice by the Seoul Seobu District Court. They are currently making a third attempt.
Korea Exposé caught up with Dave Kim on the sidelines of the Seoul Pride Film Festival, held earlier this month, where he talked about film, same-sex marriage, and importance for the LGBT community to gain other South Koreans’ trust through cultural activism.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Korea Exposé: Do you think your public wedding ceremony changed anything in South Korea?
From a legal point of view, nothing has changed. But social and political circumstances have changed a lot. This year was the first time the same-sex marriage issue was raised during a presidential debate. This is such a huge change. And now Korean citizens are talking about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, even over meals.
So many media attended your ceremony for the full 4 hours…
We didn’t know the media would help us that much. Many reporters have told us [my husband and me] they trust us because we’ve been working in the film industry for a long time. We’ve come to know them very well. That’s also the reason they do not write negative things about us. They trust us, and then they trust our activism.
At our wedding ceremony, they stayed for the whole show and were very supportive. As I said, trusting one another should come first. Then if the quality of the product or event is good or meaningful, they will help us more. So the wedding did play a role in putting the issue in the spotlight.
Wasn’t there opposition to you holding a wedding ceremony outside?
Our location was strategic. We wed on a bridge above the Cheonggyecheon stream, which is located on the boundary between two districts, Jung-gu and Jongno-gu.
Seoul City Government is not very supportive when it comes to the Queer Parade in Seoul Plaza. The event itself criticizes the government for not doing more or recognizing the rights of the LGBT community. But in our case, we needed their unofficial support. Both districts guided us to hold our ceremony on the bridge over Cheonggyecheon, where no district has clear authority over it.
If protest groups try to lodge a complaint, the respective district offices would deflect responsibility onto the other district. They can blame each other. Why? Because they already know us and trust us. They support us, but don’t say it publicly.
I hope that more LGBT activists learn how to use this kind of political power sometimes. Someone should criticize the government. But someone should also negotiate with the government. At the end of the day, we need their support.
Will you appeal the court’s decision again?
We have already submitted our next appeal. Most cases have a limited time for the judge to give an answer. In our case, oddly, there is no such time limit for a decision to be made. It might take another year to get a response. We are still waiting.
Funny thing is, every judge in Korea knows they should recognize same-sex marriage because our constitution is based on the German system, which now recognizes same-sex marriage. With pressure increasing due to Taiwan’s recent legalization and no doubt Japan soon too, there is simply no more excuse.
Tell me about this year’s Seoul Pride Film Festival.
This year the festival is in its seventh edition. At the beginning, it was difficult to call it a film festival due to its small size. In the first few years, we were screening about 30 films. Now we’ve grown to 70 films from 30 countries
There are some guidelines as to whether you are a screening, competition, film festival, or even international film festival. We are now officially a film festival, and one of our goals is to become the queer film hub in Asia and be recognized by the government and Korean Film Council as an international film festival by 2020.
This year’s festival was sponsored by Seoul City Government. How did you achieve that?
As far as I know, we are the only LGBT cultural event sponsored by the government since 2015.
The most important thing is the host body of our festival. This year, it includes the Sinnaneun Center — the first LGBT foundation recognized by the government. To be sponsored by the government, your host body must be incorporated or registered as a foundation.
Many of our films this year received a great deal of attention from around the world. They [Seoul Government] check our program, partners and venue in order to assess the festival’s value.
Is the Pride Film Festival’s goal to promote LGBT rights?
No. We do not want to promote our festival as a LGBT movement. We do not want to be like, “We are in a very hard situation, please feel sorry for us and give us your money.” While the pride movement does need some sort of vocal actions against the government [such as the Queer Parade], cultural activism takes a different route.
Is this festival only for the queer community?
Not at all. We’ve been conducting online surveys of festival-goers. In 2011, almost 90 percent of our audience were LGBT. Now the number is approximately 40 percent.
The reason why I really try my best for the program is because even though the festival might be meaningful to someone [the queer community], if the films are not well made, no one will be interested in coming. The audience who attend our screenings come because they are interested in the films themselves. As they are watching the films, they will think about LGBT issues, and after that they will talk to their friends. If they are satisfied with the film’s quality, they will bring their friends and family. That’s why this year is our biggest festival to date.
While it is important to deliver your voice through political means, many do not listen to politics. They are more in tune with what friends and social media say.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yes, both my husband and I are activists. We are also members of Chingusai (South Korean gay men’s human rights group), where we’ve both held executive positions in the past.
Are you hopeful about legally getting married in South Korea in the near future?
In May, just a few weeks after South Korea elected a left-leaning president for the first time in a decade, a soldier was given a six-month suspended sentence for allegedly having a having sex with another male soldier.
Amnesty International slammed the South Korea military for its “bigoted hunt to root out gay personnel.” It said, “President Moon Jae-in needs to send an unequivocal message that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity will not be tolerated, including in the military.”
Unfortunately, that unequivocal message would not come. South Korean politicians have so far kept their distance from the issue, often under pressure to appease the Protestant lobby that continue to maintain a strong influence over the country’s politics.
Moon Jae-in was no exception. As candidate, he had said in a live presidential debate in April that he opposed homosexuality. Moon’s attitude is the political norm, rather than the exception, even in political factions that call themselves progressive.
Meanwhile, a 2017 Gallup Korea survey revealed that 66 percent of citizens aged 19-29 were in favor of same-sex marriage, indicating a huge generational divide from respondents in their 50s and over 60, of which 22 percent and 16 percent supported the cause, respectively. In response to the question “Do you consider homosexuality to be a form of love?” 80 percent of South Koreans aged 19-29 said yes, while 27 percent in the 60-plus category responded in kind.
Outside politics, attitudes are slowly changing. But the fight for LGBT rights will still be a long, uphill battle.
Cover image: Wedding rings (Source: Fæ via Wikimedia Commons)
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