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As Emhoff visits South Korea, gender and LGBTQ issues come to the fore

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with second gentleman Doug Emhoff in Seoul on May 10. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool/Reuters)

SEOUL — When second gentleman Doug Emhoff toured Seoul’s popular Gwangjang Market on Wednesday, he was guided by one of South Korea’s most prominent gay celebrities. Hong Seok-cheon taught him the names of various street foods and shared Korean pancakes in paper cups — a classic technique for eating them.

This moment highlighting South Korea’s diversity and culture came the same afternoon a top adviser to the new conservative president was in the headlines for commenting that “homosexuality can be treated” — like a smoking habit.

The jarring split-screen moment underscored the challenges in South Korea for the LGBTQ community, bringing gender issues to the forefront for the nascent administration of Yoon Suk-yeol and compounding fears among activists about the prospect of gay and women’s rights under an administration that courted “anti-feminist” voters as a campaign strategy.

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While many developed nations grapple with systemic discrimination and gender imbalance in the workplace, South Korea — one of the lowest-ranking developed economies for gender equality — has a particularly long way to go. Homosexuality is still a taboo in South Korea, though there has been some progress.

Hong, whose English name is Tony, came out in 2000 and remains one of the few openly gay celebrities in South Korea. Rainbow Action, a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups in South Korea, called on Yoon to answer for “homophobic comments” by his aide and take actions against rampant homophobia in the country.

On Wednesday, Kim Seong-hoe, the presidential secretary for religion and multiculturalism, made headlines for a Facebook post clarifying his 2019 post that he believed homosexuality was a “type of mental illness.” He acknowledged that the comment was hate speech and apologized.

“I respect individuals’ diverse sexual orientations. However, personally, I am against homosexuality. And there are people who have innate homosexual tendencies, but in many cases, I think people mistake their habits or tendencies as their sexual instincts,” he wrote. “In those cases, homosexuality can be treated, like how a smoker can receive treatments for cigarette addiction.”

The new cabinet is shaping up to be overwhelmingly male. So far, just three of 18 ministerial nominees are women — and none of the 20 proposed vice ministers are.

Former president Moon Jae-in, who left office Monday, by contrast, pledged a “gender equal cabinet,” though he fell short of his goal with a cabinet that was 33 percent female. Women make up less than 20 percent of the seats in South Korea’s parliament.

The issue of gender equality came into focus this week as Emhoff led the U.S. delegation to Yoon’s inauguration. Emhoff, the first man to be in the role of vice-presidential spouse as he supports the highest-ranking woman of color in U.S. history, has been vocal about the importance of being supportive.

In an interview with The Washington Post in Seoul, Emhoff said he is an advocate of supporting women’s professional advancement, which he said is beneficial to everyone — not just women. Emhoff said his comments on gender were not directed at the Yoon administration.

“I think it’s important to have more women leaders in government, more women leaders in business, more women leaders in education,” Emhoff said. “It’s not just an issue to only help women to the exclusion of men. It’s an issue that would actually help everybody.”

Emhoff, who has been a lawyer for three decades, said he has seen the benefits of women’s professional advancement throughout his career and now as second gentleman.

“That’s why with the platform that I have, I have and I will continue to strike that message that men need to step up and not just say they’re being helpful and not just think they’re being helpful, but to actually be helpful, do things that are helpful that actually will help women succeed,” he said.

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Gender was a dominant issue ahead of the March presidential election, with female activists for gender equality clashing with a rising male “anti-feminist” movement.

With South Korea’s failure to pass a national law that bans discrimination, gender equality activists have raised alarms about the country’s deep-seated patriarchal views on gender and sexual orientation, which they say are especially harmful for young LGBTQ Koreans.

Moon, who had worked as a human rights lawyer, previously said he “does not like” homosexuality and had “no intention” of legalizing it or same-sex unions. During his presidency, Moon said society “has yet to reach a consensus” on legalizing same-sex marriage.

When asked in a Human Rights Watch candidate questionnaire about steps he would take to recognize same-sex partnerships, Yoon said that “although one may have the right to choose their sexual orientation, I think we need a careful approach to the issue because denying biologically assigned genders and recognizing same-sex couples could have significant social impact.”

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Yoon promised to abolish the Gender Ministry but has not yet taken formal steps to do so. In the meantime, he appointed Kim Hyun-sook, one of three female ministerial nominees, to head the ministry.

When opposition lawmakers pressed the gender minister nominee on the lack of female presence in Yoon’s cabinet, she said in a written response on Monday: “I expect the talent pool of women to be leveraged and lead to professional women getting tapped for vice ministers and other positions from now on.”

Lee reported from Tokyo.