By Joel P. Engardio
A gay pride parade in Seoul, South Korea, last summer was blocked by hundreds of Christian protestors laying in the street. Nearly one-third of South Korea’s population belongs to a Christian church that says it’s a sin to be gay.
Yet more than 10,000 people showed up for the “Love Conquers Hate” themed parade, sponsored in part by Google Korea.
It was a flash point for two conflicting forces in the city of 10 million – traditionalists versus new tech and the societal change it represents. Both sides pressured city officials as the parade’s permit was approved, rescinded and then reissued.
The parade also tested the political resilience of Seoul’s liberal mayor, Park Won-soon. It was election season and Park faced a conservative challenger who used homophobic rhetoric to criticize Park for allowing an anti-homophobia campaign to appear on city buses and billboards.
Park won re-election and is now considered a top contender for president in 2017. His staff invited me to interview him when he recently visited San Francisco to meet with tech leaders and seek venture capital investments for Seoul start-ups.
Park, who started his career as a human rights lawyer, immediately asked about my background at the American Civil Liberties Union. I told him I worked on social justice issues ranging from LGBT rights to immigration.
His interest in the ACLU made me curious how far he was willing to lead on human rights for LGBT Koreans as the possible next president of South Korea.
“I personally agree with the rights of homosexuals,” Park said. “But the Protestant churches are very powerful in Korea. It isn’t easy for politicians. It’s in the hands of activists to expand the universal concept of human rights to include homosexuals. Once they persuade the people, the politicians will follow. It’s in process now.”
I asked him if Taiwan might be the first Asian country to allow same-sex marriage since the Taiwanese legislature is considering a bill to legalize it.
“I hope Korea will be the first,” Park said. “Many homosexual couples in Korea are already together. They are not legally accepted yet, but I believe the Korean constitution allows it. We are guaranteed the right to the pursuit of happiness. Of course, there may be different interpretations to what that pursuit means.”
I told Park his remarks reminded me of an ACLU conundrum: how to protect the Constitutional rights of people who have opposing beliefs. Letting a gay couple marry while allowing a religion to call it sinful is the hallmark of a truly free society. But what about the rights of a group that nearly everyone considers unpopular?
South Korea still prosecutes and jails Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse compulsory military service, which goes against international consensus on the rights of conscientious objectors. Park wants to change that.
“Alternative civilian service for Jehovah’s Witnesses would be acceptable,” he said.
I was impressed at how far and consistently Park was willing to defend human rights in a part of the world not known for it. At 58, he remains connected to his experience as a freshman at Seoul National University when he was expelled after being arrested at a pro-democracy rally.
Park also looks to solve new urban challenges in housing, transportation and sustainability. He came to San Francisco to get tech industry support for his “creative economy” and “sharing city” initiatives in a city, like his, that simultaneously embraces and protests change.
“Seoul has many conflicts, struggles and demonstrations. Innovation brings resistance from interest groups who think they are damaged and losing benefits,” Park said. “Sometimes even my old friends are against me. But it’s important to face your opposition and hear them out. It’s in that process of discussion where you can find solutions and help people understand why the change is good.”