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Gay rights get a negative spin at fourth presidential debate

Apr 27,2017
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A protester calling for the passage of a law prohibiting discrimination against sexual and other minorities runs toward Democratic Party nominee Moon Jae-in during a press event in front of the National Assembly on Wednesday. [YONHAP]


The fourth presidential debate Tuesday touched on an issue often avoided in conservative Korea and almost always ignored by presidential candidates: gay rights.

Liberty Korea Party nominee Hong Joon-pyo raised the issue of homosexuals in Korea, blaming them for the “rampant spread of AIDS.”

The former prosecutor claimed the military is deeply troubled by gays and said they were undermining the country’s defense capability, without elaborating. He then asked frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party (DP) if he agreed that gay men in uniform were undermining Korea’s military strength.

To the surprise of many, Moon, a former human rights lawyer, concurred. “Yes,” he said, “I think so too.”

Hong asked Moon if he was against homosexuality. Moon said he was.

Under the South Korean military criminal act, homosexual activity such as anal sex is punishable for up to two years in prison. There is no such law for civilians.

The brief exchange during the debate among the five contenders in the race was the first time the issue of gay rights arose since presidential debates began in 1992, five years after direct presidential elections were restored.

While it may indicate growing public awareness of the issue, the frontrunner’s remark that he was against homosexuality left many disappointed, especially considering his career as a human rights lawyer.

Moon later clarified that while he was against the legalization of same sex marriage, he was also against discrimination against people for their sexual orientations.

“We should not discriminate based on sexual preferences,” he said. “Legalizing (same sex marriage) and opposing discrimination against homosexuals are two different issues,” said Moon.

“Moon is a human rights lawyer,” said a gay Canadian expat living in Seoul, who asked not to be identified. “How can you call yourself a human rights lawyer when you deny a human being the right to marriage?”

A senior official in the Moon camp told the Korea JoongAng Daily that while Moon was firm in his position that no discrimination should be allowed against people because of their sexual orientation, he opposed same sex marriage because he feels the country “was not ready” for that.

“Maybe it has to do with him being a Catholic, I do not know for sure,” said the official. On Moon’s agreement with Hong that gays in the military were weakening the country’s defense, the official clarified that Moon was referring to sexual assaults in the barracks by aggressors - straight or gay.

It was clear that Hong was playing to his conservative base, which is against gay rights. Conservatives have long campaigned against anti-discrimination laws that would ban discrimination based on sexual preferences.

Hong said in the debate homosexuals were to be blamed for the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly known as AIDS, to 14,000 people in the country, a position and statistic that went unchallenged by the four other contenders.

Kim Sung-nam, an official at the AIDS management center at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), said Hong’s claim that homosexuals were responsible for AIDS spreading was wrong.

“Our epidemiological survey into AIDS infection shows that there are more infections of AIDS among heterosexuals than homosexuals,” the official told the Korea JoongAng Daily. Data compiled by the CDC of AIDS infected patients back up that claim. In 2015 alone, there were 1,018 newly registered HIV/AIDS patients. Of the 1,018, 288 said they had contracted the virus from sexual contact with the same sex while 364 said they contracted it through an encounter with the opposite sex. 366 didn’t say how they had contracted the virus.

Kim, however, acknowledged that the number of AIDS patients who had contracted the virus from homosexual activity could be higher since some could have avoided answering honestly in fear of social stigma.

Hong’s claim that there were 14,000 people infected with AIDS in the country also turned out to be wrong. According to a CDC report, a total of 10,502 people were registered as HIV/AIDS patients as of 2015.

Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily that Hong’s anti-gay remarks makes its attempts to prevent the spread of the disease harder.

“Because of such fiery anti-gay sentiment, people who are gay remain in the dark in fear of stigmatization, which makes our AIDS-preventive measures more challenging,” she said.

In the debate, minor Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jeung emerged as the only champion of gay rights, while People’s Party nominee Ahn Cheol-soo and Bareun Party nominee Yoo Seong-min remained tightlipped on the issue.

“Homosexuality is not a matter of support or dissent,” said Sim, the only female candidate and a life-long labor activist. It is a matter “of sexual orientation,” and therefore not a matter of choice.

“I am heterosexual. But I am firm in my belief that the rights and freedoms of a sexual minority should be respected,” she said. “That is what a democratic nation is supposed to do.”

An anti-discrimination act banning the mistreatment of people because of their gender, educational level, nationality, color of skin or sexual orientation, among other factors, was first proposed by the Justice Ministry in 2007. But it faced a fierce backlash from conservative Christian groups concerned that the law would end educational programs aimed at preventing homosexual behavior. The anti-discrimination act has never been put to a vote.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]