Dispatch

Coronavirus Resurgence in South Korea Reignites Homophobia

A new spurt of cases after the lifting of social distancing restrictions exposes an undercurrent of hate.

Seoul commuters wear protective masks as they crowd on an escalator and stairs after getting off the subway during rush hour on May 11.
Seoul commuters wear protective masks as they crowd on an escalator and stairs after getting off the subway during rush hour on May 11. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
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SEOUL—The camera situated behind the DJ table is filming the nightclub crowd. It’s packed. On the little stage immediately in front of the camera, a group of men perform a choreographed dance to a recent pop hit. It looks like any regular pre-pandemic night out, but, allegedly, this video is documenting what would become the origin of South Korea’s second outbreak of the coronavirus.

Because, on that night, a 29-year-old man infected with the coronavirus went out clubbing. Now more than a hundred cases have been linked back to him, and South Korea is talking about a second wave much earlier than anticipated. And some people are not happy about that.

“There’s a reason why dongkochung are hated,” an anonymous commenter wrote under the video from the club that allegedly captured the source of the new outbreak.

The Korean word doesn’t need to be translated—it’s a slur for gay men, and it has been circulating online because the club in question is a gay club. Besides visiting the venue in the video, the 29-year-old man also went to a gay sauna and four other clubs. After a newspaper revealed the sexuality aspect of the story, a string of homophobic messages started to spread online.

Song, a gay man who went to one of the clubs that night, described one video posted on a popular Korean online platform, showing male dogs trying to mate with each other. “It says: ‘The situation in Itaewon clubs and gay sauna,’ and the comments are all hate speech,” he told Foreign Policy. Song is his last name; he said he’s not comfortable having his full name publicized because his job at a hospital could be jeopardized.

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“They said I should stay at home for 10 days. I told them I went there [Itaewon, a popular club and bar district in Seoul]. They might think I’m gay. I’m not sure it would be OK. I’m not sure what’s going on,” he said.

South Korea was lauded internationally for its quick and effective control of the virus, swiftly going from being the country with the most cases outside China to having just around 10 new cases a day for a month. And now the numbers are once again rising rapidly. While it might be convenient to blame the resurgence of homophobia now on the sudden increase in numbers and people looking for a scapegoat, homophobia is something South Korea has been struggling with for a long time.

“The LGBT community in general is treated as a sexual minority in Korea, which means that there is still widespread hatred and stigmatization toward them,” said Sun Mok-kwon, a coordinator at Amnesty International’s Korea branch. He said Amnesty couldn’t conclude as yet that there was an increase in homophobic content online. But that doesn’t mean the new messages online aren’t posing a threat.

“Those hatred-based comments are really threatening to LGBT people. That can have a negative effect on their mental health, and we think there’s always a threat of going from online to offline because we have seen numerous cases of offline activism against LGBT [people],” Sun said.

There is another socially hazardous issue involved too, which is that the lack of legal protection for minorities in South Korea makes a lot of people all the more reluctant to come forward, even if they suspect they might be infected. “When our identities are exposed, there is nothing to protect us. Korea doesn’t even have a basic anti-discrimination protection,” a gay expat named Scott, who lives in Seoul, told Foreign Policy via a messaging app. Like Song, he’s not comfortable having his identity revealed. “In order to get tested you need to come forward and say: ‘I went to those clubs.’ Then you have to do a mandatory two-week quarantine regardless of your results, so you can assume if someone says they can’t come to work for two weeks, well then they must have been to the gay clubs.”

The entire situation is a bit of a flashback to the original outbreak, when a fringe church was blamed for spreading the disease and likewise a stream of angry online sentiments went viral, most famously a petition to South Korean President Moon Jae-in demanding that he ban the church from the country. Over half a million people signed that petition. Members of the sect were also reluctant to come forward and be tested originally, since there was much stigma toward them as well. The church itself does have dubious teachings and methods, such as infiltrating traditional churches to recruit members, but the point is the same: Being different in South Korea does sometimes mean you’re a target.

Indeed, it’s difficult to be the odd one out here. The country erupted into massive protests in 2018 when around 500 Yemeni asylum-seekers came to the island of Jeju, the fledgling feminist movement has been labeled as violent and hateful, and the LGBT community has fought for recognition for years.

“In Korea, people really tend to confuse the two words ‘wrong’ and ‘different.’ They think they are the same word,” Song said. “I love my family, my language, food, everything. But I always wear a mask and act straight. Everything is forced. How can I be abnormal in Korea?”

Seoul is widening the testing so that even if you just went to the area where the clubs are located, you can now get tested for free. But this adds another layer to the virus stigmatization: animus against foreigners, because the clubs are located in the party area of Itaewon, next to the old army base, and full of foreigners.

“Some of my friends who were not even in Seoul are being asked to get tested just because they are foreigners. In a chat group I’m in, one girl said her public school told her they want her bank statements to see exactly where she has been,” Scott wrote.

In the video of the dancing men, you can hear the sounds of a night out. A song by the Korean girl group Itzy booms out of the speaker system as the men swing their hips and wave their hands with smiles across their faces.

“I don’t wanna be somebody,” the song goes. “Just wanna be me, be me / I wanna be me, me, me.”

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

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