ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
South Korea is one of the world's richest nations, a modern, high-tech place where trends change fast. But on social issues, the country has been slow to change, especially for gays and lesbians, as NPR's Elise Hu reports from Seoul.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Last month, a record 85,000 South Koreans crowded into the sprawling Seoul Plaza, a green space in front of city hall, for the annual pride festival.
LEE SANG-HOON: (Speaking Korean).
HU: Actor Lee Sang-hoon, who goes by Summer, dressed himself in a hot-pink lace push-up bra with a faux silk robe for his theater troupe's skit.
LEE: (Through interpreter) We have to get more sexual minorities to vocalize their opinions and feel safe to come out of the closet.
HU: He's part of a parade and some 110 booths all fenced in by barriers and protected by lines of police. It feels like a party inside the plaza.
PHILLIP KENDALL: But outside, I'm afraid, you get the opposite.
HU: That's Phillip Kendall, a diplomat with the British embassy in Seoul, which supports pride with a booth every year.
KENDALL: You get the rather angry protesters broadcasting their music across here, trying to compete with the party atmosphere on the inside.
HU: He says all the diversity celebrated within the plaza's barriers is met not just by noise but signs and banners saying homosexuality is a sin; repent. And...
KENDALL: Some of it's not broadcastable, but they still have a very conservative view in this country to what life should be and what society should be.
HU: Despite gains for LGBTs in East Asia, South Korea still criminalizes it. This year, the military here enforced for the first time a longstanding sodomy law. It sentenced a gay soldier to six months in jail for having consensual sex with another soldier in a private place.
What was your reaction when you learned of this news?
DONGHUAN KIM: Horrified.
HU: Donghuan Kim is a volunteer with a nonprofit called Military Human Rights Korea, working to try and change the law.
KIM: The younger generations - they're very open-minded, and they're trying to set the homosexual community to the major society. But there's, like, 10 million Christians out there. Like, they're very, very homophobic.
HU: Pastor Joseph Joo heads a group called Anti-Homosexuality Christian Solidarity. He says South Korea isn't ready to accept sexual minorities.
JOSEPH JOO: (Through interpreter) Christians make up a huge part of South Korea's public life, and they have taken a big part in Korea's modernization. We feel that because homosexuality goes against biblical teachings, it's emotionally unacceptable to the public.
HU: He also cites South Korea's birthrate, the lowest among the world's richest nations, as a reason why he's against same-sex couplings. The new president, Moon Jae-in, hails from a progressive party. But pressed during the campaign, he too said he opposed homosexuality. After outcry, Moon apologized kind of. He said he shouldn't have been judgmental. The British diplomat Kendall...
KENDALL: All of our countries went through this years ago. So we try to explain how we got over the issues which Korea is experiencing today.
HU: He and other LGBT supporters say a pride festival that grows bigger every year, increasing international pressure on Korea and regional neighbors making progress do make a difference, challenging those dissenters outside the gates. Actor Lee Sang-hoon...
LEE: (Through interpreter) In comparison with other prides in the world, there's more protest, as you can see, outside the square. And it makes me want to win.
HU: He and his troupe are dressed in bathrobes for a reason. Later in the day, they all shed those robes during a performance - an artistic expression of coming out. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF FELLY'S "HELEMENTARY")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.