Event Report: Queer Korean Trans and Diaspora Identity

Report by Allan C Simpson, QA Committee 

‘Queer’ Asia and SOAS North Korea Society got together to organise a seminar on “Queer Korean Trans and Diaspora Identity” at SOAS, University of London on 1st Dec, 2017. The guests for the event were: 1. Tufts University’s Shyun J. Ahn 2. Korean YouTuber Hayden Royalty, and 3. postcolonial studies and ornithologist enthusiast Kahn J. Ryu. The session was chaired by Alex Hong, QA Committee. 

At this exciting collaborative event between Queer Asia and SOAS’ North Korea Society, we invited three guests coming from different perspectives, and with different approaches. The presentations together formed a new take on the borders of ‘queer,’ Korea (North and South), trans identity, dissident identity, the Korean diaspora, queer theory, bodies, and ‘coming out’ in the familial, physical, and digital realms.

The first presentation––delivered by Kahn J. Ryu––was titled “Rethinking Total War: Training Empire and Transgender Desires.” In Ryu’s words, their aim was to engender “a critical thought experiment” which was set out “to explore queer nature of not only historiography but also affective encounter with history as the pull of the past on the present.” Ryu offered their working definitions of gender and transgender, the latter as that bundle of forces which “emerge as a local phenomenon, as errors and eros of a specific time and place”. Ryu then delved into the colonial Japan’s manipulative portrayal of Korean bodies, with specific relation to Japanese biopolitics of colonial modernity of gender.

Of more contemporary note was when Ryu introduced, as part of their personal anecdote at the very beginning of the presentation, the 2013 case of a transgender man named “Lee,” who at first was, like all other applicants for gender marker change had been to that point, required by the South Korean court to complete what is called “bottom surgery.” But Lee successfully argued with a chain of logic defying the legal prerequisite of that irreversible anatomical operation, which had been (and still is) readily hailed as the defining evidence of the applicant’s commitment to his claimed male gender.

This anecdote was later reminded when Ryu provided “a historical account of Korean male diaspora in Manchukuo, a puppet state of Japanese Empire during its total war regime,” supporting Ryu’s overall argument that the “Japanese biopolitics of colonial modernity of gender trained the general Korean population as imperial subjects in late 1930s to the end of the Second World War and necessitated among them the spread of certain transgender urges.     The second talk offered a rare perspective on queer North Korea, presented by Shyun J. Ahn, titled “Queer Sexualities and Juche Ideology.” In a similar vein to Ryu, Ahn also exhibited a queering of history in relation to Derrida’s “Speech and Phenomena” and “Specters of Marx,” specifically Derrida’s theorised trajectory of “the ultimate telos (meaning) —> the masses (phenomenalized) —> the new History (heard)” Regardless of normative takes on History, Ahn argued that “sinthosexuals” were always present because the construction of the new History is based on reproduction. Even though History does not mentions queers, Ahn argues, they necessarily antagonize (and thus assign a position to) queer sexualities. Ahn also presented images from film and other North Korean media which utilised the image of the child, portrayed as both the dependent subject of and grateful subject for the North Korean state. Ahn is also the founder of Nabillera, a website described as being “a nonprofit web magazine organized by volunteer translators, editors, and communicators who are interested in contemporary Korean literature.”   

     The third and final talk took a much less academic approach and was more affective in nature, involving Hayden Royalty’s personal account of being gender-fluid in a Korean-American diasporic context. Hayden, a popular YouTuber creating material on gender-fluid identity and contemporary queer South Korea, titled their talk “Importance of Media Representation – Growing Up and My Story,” especially significant as it was the first time they had given such a presentation in a public, university setting. They narrated for the audience their relationship with their sister, who supported them when ‘coming out’ and also showed support regarding anxiety over the anticipated Korean-American diasporic response, considering that the community is known to be close-knit and closely associated with church groups and networks, both in the States and South Korea. Hayden also sold some of their merchandise after the seminar, including stickers, badges, and jewellery that they had made to fund their future queer activist endeavours. Hayden can be found producing engaging videos on YouTube on their channel “Hayden Royalty”   which has around 12,000 subscribers.