North Korea’s only openly gay defector finds love in lockdown

24 years since escaping North Korea, losing everything and starting again, Jang Yeong-jin, 62, has finally found love.

An older Korean man speaking

North Korea’s only openly gay defector is engaged. Jang Yeong-jin, 62, met his American fiancée on a dating app and now they have decided to tie the knot.

It is a far cry from the first three-plus decades of Jang’s life where he lived in an oppressive State and was trapped in an unhappy marriage with a woman.

“I couldn’t lay a finger on my wife,” he told the BBC. “I went to so many hospitals in North Korea because we thought that I had some sort of physical problem.” It turns out he was gay but actually didn’t know it because of North Korea’s cruel authoritarian regime. 

“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 explained in an interview with the New York Times in 2015.

He did find solace in his childhood friend Seoncheol. “When the subway was crowded, I sat on Seoncheol’s lap, and he would hug me from behind,”  Jang said in the same interview. “People didn’t care, thinking we were childhood friends.” However, Jang knew he needed to get out when he filed for divorce and was denied one.

He escaped the country in 1997 after a previous botched attempt and settled down in South Korea. His miraculous escape generated headlines at the time as so few survived the dangerous crossing through the mine-strewn demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea and South Korea.  

However, life was not easy. He was an outsider in South Korea as a gay defector. He only discovered his identity in 1998 when he read an article about gay men and coming outThings began looking up for Jang as he started dating and entered into a relationship with a man in 2004. There was to be no fairytale ending though, as the relationship turned out to be a scam and Jang was robbed of his life savings. Alone, penniless and homeless, Jang restarted his life. He got a job as a cleaner and slowly began to get back on his feet.

He met his soon-to-be-husband last year on a dating app. The pair chatted online and four months later Jang flew to America to meet in person. Despite a poor first impression, the pair soon hit it off. At the same time the coronavirus lockdown began and the two had a lot of time and space to get to know each other. 

They became engaged after two months. Jang is now finalising the documents needed to prove his marriage in North Korea has ended and they hope to get married later this year.

Despite his current happiness, Jang remains haunted by what he left behind in North Korea as a gay defector. His family was punished for his defection and banished to the north of the country to live in brutal conditions. His mother and four of his siblings died from hunger and illness.

The loss lingers but Jang channeled his grief into his writing, releasing his memoir, A Mark of Red Honor, in 2015 and he continues to find the pen to be a source of comfort.

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