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Heroes

North Korea's first openly-gay defector is now engaged to his American boyfriend

North Korea's first openly-gay defector is now engaged to his American boyfriend
via Vietnam Mobiography / Flickr

Jang Yeong-Jin, 62, has had a perilous journey to find true love. Growing up in totalitarian North Korea, he had no idea there was any such thing as being homosexual. He thought that he had a medical problem because he wasn't attracted to his wife.

He got married at 27 and when it came time to consummate the relationship he felt terribly uncomfortable.

"I couldn't lay a finger on my wife," he told the BBC. "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 any other reason for his lack of interest in women. "There is no concept of homosexuality in North Korea," he says. North Koreans live a communal existence so men frequently hold hands, but it's just assumed that it's a sign of close friendship.

"North Korea is a totalitarian society — we have lots of communal life so it's normal for us," Jang said.

Kim Seok-Hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Women's University in South Korea, has interviewed dozens of defectors and says the concept of homosexuality is unheard of in the totalitarian state.

"When I asked them about homosexuality, they didn't catch on quickly so I had to explain it to every single person," Kim told the BBC.

Jang wanted to file for divorce so that he and his unhappy wife could both live freely, but given the country's draconian family laws, he realized it would be best if he defected to South Korea. In 1996, Jang braved crossing the border, but when he couldn't make it from China to South Korea, he returned home.

The next year, Jang escaped to South Korea by crawling through the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), making him one of the few people to successfully do so.

In 1998, he was reading an article about his defection in a South Korean newspaper when he came across a review of an American film about two gay men that featured a photo of them kissing.

"When I saw that, I knew right away that I was this kind of person. That's why I couldn't like women," he said. After the revelation, he became a regular in Seoul's gay bars. Eventually, he met a flight attendant and the two started a relationship. Unfortunately, the man conned Jang out of his life savings.

What it's like to be gay in North Korea?www.youtube.com

This experience soured Jang on relationships, but in 2020, he met a Korean man living in America on a dating app. After four months, he flew to America to meet him but when he first saw him at the airport he was unimpressed by his casual, American style of dress. "Seeing how he dressed, I assumed he was an ill-mannered and blunt man," Jang says.

But soon, after many long picnics and bottles of wine, he began to grow on Jang.

"The more I got to know this man, the more I could see that he had a very good character. Although he is eight years younger than me, he is the kind of person who likes to care for others first," he said.

After two months he proposed to Jang.

The couple hopes to marry later this year.

"I always felt fearful, sad, and lonely when I lived alone. I am a very introverted and sensitive person, but he is an optimistic man, so we are good for each other," he said.

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