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Gay rights in South Korea

South Korean filmmaker and activist Sunghwan Kim talks to Gay Star News
Sunghwan Kim and his partner Gwang-soo Kim Jho

Activist and film producer Sunghwan Kim (also known as Dave Kim) talks to Gay Star News about LGBT rights in socially conservative South Korea, and why he's getting married for money.

Why did you and your partner launch Rainbow Factory, a production company for LGBT-themed films?

The reason I started working in the film industry is through my boyfriend. He is the CEO of Generation Blue Film in Korea quite a big film company. He suggested, 'why don't you work with me?', because there was no gay film company in Korea.

There are a lot of tools to change the world and film is one of them because a lot of people go to the theatre to see films. In Korea the young generation go to see films one or two times a week.

And you can send a message through film very easily, so that's why we decided to found the Rainbow Factory, a gay film company in 2011.

Had you made any films before?

In 2006 we made a film called No Regret. It was selected in the Panorama section of the Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival] and it was a big commercial success in Korea.

Why did you decide to make your last film, Two Weddings and a Funeral, a comedy?

Most Korean people think that LGBT people are always very sad, but this film is romantic and bright. It makes people realize that gay people also live very happy lives.

The film is about a fake marriage between a gay man and a lesbian, are there a lot of marriages like that in Korea?

Yes there still are - but it does not work well. Korea is a very conservative country and a male-dominated society. So if you are a lesbian and you marry a gay guy, then the parents of the man will expect you to fulfill some obligations for them. The parents of the husband consider that the wife is kind of their property.

Two Weddings and a Funeral was the opening film at the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last November, is it being shown anywhere else?

It will be screened at Amsterdam Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in March and Frameline in San Francisco in June and maybe in Australia.

What's your next film about?

The next film is a buddy movie. It's not so obvious that it is a gay film but after you watch it you will realize that it is, because in Korea it's hard to get gay films shown in many places. We wanted the next film to be more commercial.

The title is Secret Detective & Vampire. The vampire wants to discover how he became a vampire, like gay people who wonder, 'why am I gay?'. The secretive detective and the vampire work together to find the killers, finally they discover not only the killers but also each others' identity.

Why have you decided to open an LGBT center in Seoul?

The reason that I want to open an LGBT center in Seoul is that after I saw the LGBT center in Amsterdam I thought we should have one here.

We want to pioneer unification. Through the center I want to unify LGBT organizations budget. I want to set up a foundation first, and then a center, so we have money.

How are you going to raise the money?

My boyfriend and I plan to get married in September. In Korea we do not have a donation culture. People don't usually give money to charities - but they do at weddings. At a marriage ceremony a lot of people give money to the couple.

So we're going to get married in the big square outside city hall in the center of Seoul on the 7 September. We hope 100,000 people will come to the wedding, because if 100,000 donate $10 we will make $1 million US dollars, enough to build the center.

We work in the film industry so we know a lot of press and media and they are already very curious about our wedding ceremony.

What happened with Hong Seok-cheon, the TV presenter whose career plummeted after he came out in 2000?

Most Korean LGBT activists are sorry about Hong Seok-cheon's case, because he didn't come out he was outed. So he wasn't prepared to handle the media attention.

So even though he's been a big success he doesn't really talk about LGBT rights. He doesn't really participate in the LGBT movement because he had a bad coming out experience.

He said he's gay but he doesn't encourage other people to come out from the closet. He said it's also ok to be in the closet. That's why most LGBT activists in Korea do not like him actually, but he's the first gay celebrity he we have here.

Is it still hard for people to come out of the closet in Korea?

Nowadays is much better than 10 years ago.

Do you have a Pride march in Seoul?

Yes we've had one for 13 years, but it's not as big as in Europe or USA. About 3,000 people attend the parade.

Ten years ago when we paraded in the street people looked at us like we were very weird. They looked at us very badly. But now they join together sometimes and clap for us. Before they used to hate us, but now it's much better, especially for the young generation.

That means the parade is helping to change people's minds.

What does Chingusai, the gay rights organization that you work for, do?

We do a lot of cultural work. We have a gay chorus called G-Voice. If there is an issue to do with LGBT people then we protest to the government.

There is a lot of discrimination at school. Teachers teach the students that sexual minorities are wrong. We try to protest that. We tell them that we are everywhere. Everyone should respect different identities.

We're trying to make a Bill saying that to go through Congress.

Do you have any sympathetic politicians?

Only a few, many five congressmen are interested in our rights. But we also want to elect a gay congressmen, like in New York.

My friend is thinking about standing as a candidate, but he's still not out socially. He's out to his parents and family, but coming out to the public is different. So I cannot say his name.

My friend worries that he won't be able to work if he comes out. He wants to come out after he becomes a famous politician.

What other LGBT events are there in South Korea?

We have the film festival just after the parade in May. It lasts for seven days and we get about 4,000 people coming to watch films. It's been happening for 12 years.

We have a lot of parties, but not very big or special ones. The film festival, parade and the G-Voice concert once a year are the biggest LGBT events in Korea currently.

What is the government's attitude to LGBT people in South Korea?

The government know about the existence of LGBT people, but they don't want to recognize us officially.

Our new president Park Geun-hye, who was elected last month, is the daughter of our former dictator. She's very conservative. So it's going to be a difficult time.

The other candidate Moon Jae-in was very open-minded. His wife even said she supports the LGBT movement.

The last president Lee Myung-bak is very primitive and a fundamental Christian. He officially said homosexuals are diseased.  

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