Being Queer in North Korea

Queer Asia | Essay Prize, Winner
In this winning piece, Shyun Jeong Ahn questions how we might study the Queer in North Korea

Imagine studying queerness in North Korea, where queers are absent in its political discourse. Imagine studying queers in a country where homosexuals are charged not with sodomy but with “falling into capitalism”, where cuddling and groping a same-sex soldier in the cold is not same-sex intimacy but “revolutionary comradeship”. How should we study queerness when it’s invisible, especially using the very invisibility that makes it hard to be studied? Fortunately, the work of queer scholars in the last couple of decades have opened up the possibility of discussing subjects that aren’t conclusively present or visible. In fact, North Korea’s effort to erase queerness from politics may paradoxically assist us in seeing the position of queers in its society, as queers are, in Lee Edelman’s words, “a structural position determined by the imperative of figuration”.

For example, think about the telos of Juche ideology and how it displaces queers from society. In order to decolonize the nation from Japanese imperialism and US capitalism, On the Juche Idea, the main text of Juche ideology, tries to construct a new narrative of “history” where the oppressed masses become juche – the main agent. With “history” consistently progressing towards the liberated world of the future, “history” in the text is not a mere “chronology of past events”, but a chronology of the past, the present, and the future. In other words, through Juche ideology, North Korea strives to conceive a new set of temporality that is heterogeneous from the one narrated by the imperialists and capitalists. Because the fantasized future stops and provides meaning to a endless deferral of meaning, individual and social realities that are predicated on meaning would be shattered if the certainty of the Future is negated. Queers, therefore, as the “futricides” who do not conform to the biological fact of cis-heterosexual reproduction, threaten the fantasized Future and the sense of individual and social realities of North Korea.

The North Korean government then associates being queer with “falling into capitalism”; just like capitalism and other exploiters, queerness poses an existential threat to North Korean society.

Take a closer look at how the temporality of the exploiters is replaced by the new temporality. Juche ideology foremost turns the existing temporality into what resembles a “queer kind of history”, which, according to Carla Freccero, “involves an openness to the possibility of being haunted, even inhabited by ghosts”. Under this possibility, specters of the dead who have been smashed and dissipated by the exploiters may return and disturb their temporality and hence their Future.

But knowing and fearing this disruptive power of specters, Juche ideology stabilizes their identities by categorizing them as “the masses”. In so doing, other aspects of their identities – the identities of the dead who did not support communism and socialism, those who prioritized themselves over the collective struggles, who did not reproduce “the military of sons and daughters” to ensure “the ultimate victory of the revolution” – are erased. And instead of recognizing the past as bits and pieces of imperfect images that appear and disappear, Juche ideology further shelters the new temporality by filling the past with data and cultural relics of the masses, the newly identified victor. With indisputable progress of the new temporality toward the Future, this complete image of the past is supposed to preclude any possibility of the temporality being haunted or disturbed by unwanted specters. In this respect, Juche ideology’s construction of the new temporality can be understood in a different light; the new temporality is more than an attempt to create new individual and social realities, which, in turn, need to be protected from the “futricides”. The structure of the new temporality itself is rather, by definition, a rejection of the undesirable specters of “futuricides”.

Capitalism, imperialism, and queerness, as a result, are not rejected only out of necessity but by virtue of the ideology’s existence as it is.

These examples demonstrate how studying queers in North Korea may contribute towards queer theory, North Korean studies, and the study of human society in general. It manifests that queers, even when they are erased from society, can be studied by the means of their erasure. It also confirms the possibility of using queer theory to explore subjects that are otherwise invisible in society. Lastly, as Edelman tells us, “the efficacy of queerness, its real strategic value, lies in its resistance to a Symbolic reality that only ever invests us as subjects insofar as we invest ourselves in it, clinging to its governing fictions, its persistent sublimations, as reality itself”.

Studying queerness in North Korea may suggest a way to fight the totalitarian regime that has been trampling on human rights and dignity: exposing and resisting the governing fictions of reality through undoing its temporality. Perhaps it’s time for us, as individuals interested in queer issues in Asia, to give more attention to queer studies in North Korea.

 ‘Queer’ Asia ran a blog contest in partnership with Zed Books on the theme of our 2017 Conference ‘Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation.’ This essay is our winner piece. It was first published on the Zed Books website.

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