“So you are a lady who stepped into the men’s bathhouse,” shouted a psychological examiner who worked for the South Korean army to Private Kim, a 19-year-old freshly drafted conscript. Private Kim had just declared to the examiner that he was a gay person.
The examiner’s reaction was crude, but any objection or complaint by Kim was unimaginable. His head shaved, Kim was one of those conscripts who, like every other South Korean male, was sent to a South Korean draft camp located 25 miles from the North Korean border. In two days, the privates were to be assigned to one of several boot camps along the border.
“Why are you here then?” asked the examiner, breaking the awkward silence between the two. The examiner seemed to be bothered by and skeptical of this homosexual private. As a psychological examiner working for the South Korean army, his job was to filter out any possible troublemakers who craved an exemption.
“Why am I here?” Private Kim asked himself when he was woken up 6 AM in the in his barracks by a trumpet blowing reveille. Kim was sharing the room with other 20 other young men lying on the floor wrapped in their sleeping bags.
A month before his conscription, Kim had finished his first college year in Tokyo. His new friends gathered and drank beer to say their farewells. Kim returned to Korea few days after Valentine’s Day in 2009 for the conscription. His father registered him six months earlier when the Japanese Yen skyrocketed due to the subprime mortgage crisis in Wall Street. The family had to wait until the price of the Yen dropped down to pay his college tuition.
On the afternoon of the third day, the conscripts were l gathered and seated in the camp’s outdoor amphitheater. Down on the stage were signs for the conscripts who need specialized medical checkups for such problems as dentistry, orthopedics and ophthalmology.
While virtually all young Korean men are subject to two years of military, fewer then eight percent of them are granted an alternative choice called “Public Service Personnel,” such as working in a local governmental office, if their physical condition makes them unfit to serve in the army. Fewer than two percent with serious deficits or illnesses receive exemptions.
All Korean males, including Private Kim, are required to get a basic medical check-up at the age of 18 at the local draft office. Private Kim was judged physically fit to serve his country for two years. Kim did not reveal then that he was a gay person, which would have required psychological examinations at a big hospital.
Now, as they gathered in the amphitheater, the conscripts were told there would be additional medical check-ups for those needed one. Kim thought this could be the last opportunity to save his youth and freedom from being sucked into a black hole and wasted.
In front of other hundreds of his healthy peers, Kim and 40 others stepped down to the stage. Kim and four others sat in front of the sign “psychology.” They were brought to the medical office building.
“So you like men, heh?” continued the examiner, a middle aged man wearing glasses and an old military uniform. “So why are you telling this to me? Are you sure you are a homosexual?”
“While I was in my high school, I fell in love with a guy who was my best friend,” replied the private, “and I want to ask you what will happen if I fall in love with a soldier here.”
The initial conversation did not last long; the examiner seemed rather irritated. Kim was ordered to sit in the corridor and consider whether this would be his final answer, which would mean going through the army’s legal processes. He was given 20 minutes to make up his mind.
Kim stepped out to the corridor and sat on the cold cement floor. He had to calculate all the factors and risks he would carry for the rest of his life.
Declaring oneself as a gay person in the Korean army was a risky thing. Since the details would be documented in official military records, future employers or governmental agencies would find out that Private Kim was a “sexually challenged person.” Gay or not, a nail that stands out will be hammered down in Korea.
The bigger yet imminent challenge for Kim was how to explain what had happened in the draft camp to his parents. While his close friends knew, Kim had not told his parents that he was a gay person. His parents had never said a word about homosexuality while raising Kim. They did not even teach Kim and his brother how men and women conceive children.
Kim raised his head and saw three young men sitting before him. One was a thin man who seemed to be depressed. Another man talked to himself and then spoke rudely to another shy man sitting between him and Kim.
“So I am like one of them?” thought Kim. “What is so special about me? Who am I to ask for medical check-ups while my other friends and peers go into the army without any complaints?”
When Kim realized that he was the only person left waiting in the row, he knew that he did not have much time left. He was still sitting on the cold floor, figuring what kind of hardships and humiliations he would face for the rest of his life. He decided that if he received an exemption, he would go back to Japan and leave his country forever.
He reflected on his life as if he were watching a short collage film. He remembered when he made a first friend in college and learned basic Japanese by drinking beer with his colleagues. Kim also remembered how he was forced by his parents to undergo facial plastic surgery a few months before he graduated from high school to enhance his appearance before entering college to survive any competition.
He also recalled his suicidal thoughts immediately after taking a TOEFL test when he was writing university applications. Finally, he remembered the pain when he fell in love with his best friend in high school, a heterosexual guy; the friendship ended when Private Kim failed to reveal his sexuality to his friend and started pretending as if they had never been friends.
As memories became more vivid, Kim felt determined and ready. He realized that this was the moment when he was given a chance to decide his future by himself, and not a future dictated by his parents. He did not want to waste this opportunity.
“I have to tell my parents anyway,” thought Private Kim, rather amused how the army and prompted his dramatic coming-out. “My own happiness is the ultimate filial piety.”
“To be free, one must sacrifice give up a little part of oneself,” was the phrase Private Kim tried to remember as justification for his decision. The phrase was from the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by a fictional transgender character who castrated himself to escape from East Berlin. Kim realized that he had nothing to lose.
When his number was called again, Kim walked into the office and sat on the chair in front of the examiner’s desk. Kim declared that he was a homosexual person. This was to be recorded in official papers. The officer silently and slowly filled out the document and scheduled the next appointment in a hospital, where Kim’s “mental illness” would be confirmed.
When Kim and his peers marched back to their barracks, the drill master ordered the conscripts to sing marching songs like “Torches of Red Hunt,” a song urging soldiers to seek revenge against North Korean Communists.
It was only his third day in boot camp, but Kim was craving music so much. He tried to image Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 135, for he never heard the music before. He remembered the music from Milán Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” one of his favorite novels that he had read in high school student.
“Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be!)” Kim whispered to himself.
As Kim returned to the barracks, his 20 peers surrounded him and asked what had happened.
“I actually have a brain tumor. I was dropped on my head when I was a toddler,” explained Kim. His peers stared at Private Kim with both sympathy and envy.
Even though it was his first day as an official gay person in the eyes of his nation, Private Kim still had to make up some lies to get by.