His life is an amazing story that is only just now coming to a seemingly happy ending.
Jang Yeong-jin, in a gripping interview with the BBC News this past Saturday, recounts his life as a North Korean defector. He was born in North Korea at the height of the Cold War in 1958. Various books have been written in recent years about life in this reclusive communist nation, ruled since the end of World War Two by the Kim family dynasty. The fascinating details of daily life for the average North Korean is documented in Barbara Demick’s “Nothing To Envy“, where every aspect of one’s life is under the control of the government.
In the critically acclaimed novel by Adam Johnson, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” the award winning author immerses the reader in the isolation, fear, and numbing ignorance about the outside world, a world that is incomprehensible to someone who has been raised under the Orwellian propaganda of North Korea.
For Jang his life in North Korea seemed no different than anyone else. He grew up living with his family as part of the vast proletariat in the northern industrial city of Chongjin. He served the obligatory ten years in the North Korean military. But he knew that something wasn’t right with him.
He had feelings, strong emotional yearnings for fellow soldiers.
It wasn’t unusual, Jang said, for men to hold hands in public while walking, or to hug each other when greeting. But these non-romantic interactions were not enough for this questioning young man. When he finally married at the age of 27, Jang realized that he couldn’t perform his role as a husband to his wife. Not only was he not physically attracted to her, but to any woman.
His family was worried that there was some sort of physical problem with the newlywed groom, so they sent him to various doctors. He even went to see a neurologist, and was entered as a patient in a hospital for other men with similar “afflictions.” Jang says that “I figured out many of them had a similar experience to me – people who could not feel anything towards women.”
He adds that the whole notion of homosexuality is unknown in North Korea, at least when he was living through this phase of his life in the 1980s and 1990s. “As there is no concept of homosexuality, there is no awareness of the issue. In open societies, people have at least a consciousness of different sexualities, in North Korea there is no hope,” he said in a separate Guardian interview.
Things came to a head when a childhood friend of his came for a visit. Jang remembered how as children the two of them used to sleep together in the same bed during innocent sleepovers. But those memories stirred feelings for him, how he wished to be held at night, to have a romantic relationship with someone.
He decided that his life was meaningless without this kind of love.
“I really liked Seoncheol so much. I still see him in my dreams.”
Finally, in 1997 after a previous attempt to escape to South Korea via China had failed the previous year, Jang snuck through the heavily militarized DMZ. This four mile wide boundary that separates the two country is the most dangerous border in the world, filled with booby-traps, land mines, and constant surveillance from both sides.
It wasn’t until he had been in South Korea for over a year, going through intensive de-briefings as is the rule for any defector from the North, that Jang learned the real story of his “affliction.” While reading a South Korean newspaper he came across an article for an American movie which showed two men kissing and the word “homosexual.” It was an epiphany for him, and he felt at last liberated.
He began going to gay bars in Seoul on a regular basis, and eventually was set up on a date with an airline steward, with whom he fell in love. After three months of dating, his boyfriend suggested they move in together, someplace for just the two of them. Jang gave the young man his life savings for them to buy a place (at the time it was over $80,000), and his boyfriend vanished.
The South Korean police were of no help, and it was a difficult lesson for the naive Jang to learn. The stress of living alone, of being independent as an individual in a free society and not protected within a collective as before in North Korea, proved difficult for him and he spent time in a hospital for his nerves. But he slowly rebuilt his life, working as a custodian and he started writing his life story, “A Mark of Red Honor.”
Jang’s life has taken another incredible turn.
He has found love again. At the age of 62 he met another older gentleman (eight years younger), a Korean-American restaurant owner, from an on-line dating app. They finally met during the recent Covid confinement in the United States. The charming story of their first encounter, and subsequent courtship, is what has grabbed the headlines around the world: “North Korea’s Only Gay Defector To Marry.”
Like many of us, his first impressions were misleading. “…when Jang saw Min-su waiting for him in the arrivals hall, his heart sank. Min-su was in shorts and cap, and Jang was not impressed,” the BBC reports.
“Seeing how he dressed, I assumed he was an ill-mannered and blunt man,” Jang says.
Ah, sounds familiar.
After spending time together, however, the two of them have fallen in love. They are getting married later this year.