SEOUL, May 31 ― Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters will parade through central Seoul tomorrow, despite South Korea's main conservative opposition party denouncing the Pride event in a country where Christian churches have enduring political influence.
The South is Asia's fourth biggest economy and a capitalist democracy, but lived through decades of military rule when evangelical Christianity was widespread and framed the communist North as evil.
In recent times, activists say believers ― many of whom are elderly supporters of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and now-ousted president Park Geun-hye ― have found a new enemy: sexual minorities.
“Conservative Christians used to target those who were accused of being North Korean sympathisers,” said Lim Bo-rah, a senior pastor at an LGBT-friendly church in Seoul.
“And now their latest target is the nation's LGBT individuals. They consider both ― communists and sexual minorities ― as deserving to be demonised in South Korean society.”
Traditionalists have long mounted counter-demonstrations against the Pride parade and individual conservative MPs have condemned it. But this this year the LKP itself has joined in.
After members of the left-leaning ruling Democratic party said they would participate to show support, LKP spokesman Min Kyung-wook said the Democrats should “come out” as a “queer” party, adding that the annual pride event was “lascivious” and involved “excessive exposure of bodies”.
Min accused President Moon Jae-in of being deliberately vague on the subject in an attempt not to lose supporters.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, gay rights campaigners accuse Moon ― a former human rights lawyer ― of the same thing.
The government “has been silent on the matter so that it doesn't become an issue”, said Chang Suh-yeon, an attorney at Human Rights Law Foundation GongGam.
“For them to not speak up about it ― so that they don't lose any supporters ― is not ideal.”
Communism and Christianity
It is a marked contrast to Taiwan ― which also has Confucian cultural components, a history of dictatorship, and has enjoyed an economic boom in recent decades.
But earlier this month Asia's first gay marriages took place on the island after it legalised the change.
Activists say the difference is religion: South Korea has proven fertile ground for religious groups with unambiguous ideologies that offered comfort and salvation that appealed during times of deep uncertainty following the Korean War.
Now more than 20 per cent of South Korea's population are Protestant Christians, surveys show, compared to about five per cent of Taiwanese.
One fifth “may not look like a huge number, but considering how much power the Christian church has in regional societies, it would be hard for any politician to ignore their influence”, said Reverend Lim.
At least three of the South's past leaders ― the first President Syngman Rhee, Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak ― served as elders of Christian churches that were part of their political power bases.
The country's military strongmen, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, had close ties with influential Christian pastors and now Christian lawmakers regularly hold prayer sessions at the National Assembly, with the LKP's chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn openly professing his devout Christianity.
Churches continue to be an important political space, particularly outside major cities where communities can revolve around them and pastors often invite selected parliamentary candidates to meet their followers.
Moon's silence was a “strategic” position, said political commentator Park Sang-byung.
“He supports gay rights, there's no question about that ― he just doesn't think it is necessary to make his stance public considering the current political climate, as doing so will trigger intense conflicts between different generations and political parties.”
Michael Hurt, a sociologist at the University of Seoul, said the controversy reflected ever-deepening intergenerational differences in the South, where the population is ageing rapidly.
According to 2017 data, almost 50 percent of Koreans aged 60 or older voted for LKP candidate Hong Joon-pyo in the 2017 presidential election, while only 8.4 percent of those in their 20s and 30s did.
Elderly conservative Koreans could only understand “the simple, clear categories and identities that were the building blocks of their world”, said Hurt. ― AFP