KPop Idol Kim Jonghyun supports Transgender/LGBTI rights and Annyeong Student Protests

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As any KPop fan (and yes, I am one) will tell you, political statements and public political stances are something that KPop Idols usually steer away from.  For those not into KPop, the term “Idol” is used to described popular KPop performers and singers trained through South Korean talent agencies such as SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment.  During their training period, as well as their early years of performing, Kpop artists are tightly supervised by their management companies.  It has been estimated that the cost of “discovering” and training a Kpop “Idol” is around US$2.6 million dollars, so it is unsurprising that young Kpop artists are so tightly managed, to ensure that they do not get involved in any “scandals” or situation which may alienate them from their legion of fans and undermine their commercial marketability.  Thus Idol groups and singers are usually corralled by their entertainment company to stick to a fairly narrow line

However, this week two KPop idols made public their support for current student protests against privatisation and inequality in Korean society.  On December 15, Chansung from the Idol group, 2PM, tweeted to his (almost) 780,000 followers that he supported the “Annyeong” (Are you well?) protests, while Shinee’s Kim Jonghyun  – who has over 922,000 followers on twitter – changed his twitter profile photo this week to a hand written letter by a transgender student involved in the Anneyong protests. The note, written by the student, titled: “No matter what name you call us, we are not ‘Annyeong’ (well) highlights discrimination against the Transgender and LGBTI community in South Korea (for a full translation of the note, see below).

The student protests, known collectively as the “annyeong” Protests or “Are You Well? protests, have seen university and college students, as well as non-students take a stand against the privatisation of South Korea’s railroads and healthcare, as well censorship, electoral corruption and injustice within Korean society.

“Annyeong” is the Korean phrase which is commonly used in greetings to ask if someone is well or doing okay. As part of the protests, the protestors have carried and posted hand written notes with the phrase “I am not okay”, highlighting their opposition to the privatisation  attempts, as well as economic and social injustice and corruption.

The protests began on December 14, when a Korean University student, Joo Hyun Woo posted up a large handwritten poster on campus, asking if people were doing okay, because he wasn’t.  In his poster he addressed the strike by railroad workers protesting the government plan to privatise the Korean Railroad Corp.  He also addressed the issue of the accusations around a fixed presidential election and other acts of injustice and censorship taking place.  Joo’s action inspired other students who also began to write their own signs, expressing their unhappiness with the current political and economic situation in South Korea.  For the last week, students and their supporters have taken to the street with similar placards and signs.

anneyong 3 anneyong 4 anneyong 2Photos of Annyeong Protests via Netizen Buzz

Korea’s Netizen Buzz website has quoted several students on the protests:

One sociology major said, “Our society has difficulty differentiating between what is ‘different’ and what is ‘wrong’. We tend to overlook what is ‘wrong’ to be ‘different’. We need to be able to tell the government that it is ‘wrong’ to dismiss railroad union members for disagreeing with the privatization. I am here today because I refuse to stay silent. I hope that we will all be okay.”

Another student said, “Our college demands that we remain oblivious to issues regarding our government and society. We’re all just as frustrated (with this censorship) so I’m here today to say that I am not okay.”

Others said similar things to the line of, “I have to block the privatization of the railroads for my life to be okay”, “I am not okay because I am embarrassed to have my child born in this country”, “I am not okay because our society has taken away my right to express my anger towards injustice”, “Is a society just when I need to be brave just to have my voice heard?”, “I am not okay because I live in a society that censors me”…

The transgender student who wrote the note posted by Kim Jonghyun later revealed her identity and made it publicly known that he had contacted her about posting her protest note. The student,Kang Eun Ha, said she had been contacted by Jonghyun to let her know he was posting his note to his twitter profile and that he hoped that this would be okay and that she would not become the centre of unwanted attention due to his action.  Kang Eun Ha made public the exchange between herself and Jonghyun, in which he stated:

“I support you. As a celebrity, as a minority of a different sort facing the public, I also feel disappointment towards the world that does not accept difference. Of course, it can’t be compared to what you feel.”  In response, Kang Eun Ha replied:
Thank you so much. I don’t know with what words I can express my feelings…Thank you. Thank you so much. I will definitely stay strong. Please be careful of cold, and I hope you have a warm end of the year 🙂 Thank you!”

kang eun haImage via Omana They Didn’t Blog

South Korean society is still very conservative (as are a lot of countries) in relation to LGBTI rights.  So it should not be under estimated how much of a political and social “big deal” it is for an Idol star like Kim Jonghyun to take a public stance in support of Transgender and LGBTI rights in South Korea. It is something which very few public figures do, let alone young Kpop idol singers.

In September this year, one of the few openly gay film directors in South Korea, Kim Jo Kwang Soo and his partner, Kim Seung Hwan married publicly in order to draw attention to struggle of the South Korean LGBTI community for equal rights.  This month, Kim attempted to register his marriage but it was rejected.  Director Kim Jo Kwang Soo’s public campaign for equal rights is also noted in the Anneyong protest note posted by the Kang Eun Ha.


Here is a translation of Kang Eun Ha’s Anneyong protest note:

 No matter what name you call us, we are not ‘Annyeong’ (well)

Last April, the third attempt to enact anti-discrimination legislation was turned down because of those who loathe equality. In September, Kim Jo-kwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan publically held a same sex wedding for the first time in Korea. There were disturbances such as human excrements being thrown onto the stage, but Kim Jo-kwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan marched down the aisle with pride as to prove that “love is stronger than hate.” But a few days ago, their marriage registration was denied. Also, some people voiced ridiculous claims that textbooks should discuss the issue of the humans rights of sexual minorities as a topic you agree or disagree with.

Many of you who read this will think like this: how on earth does this concern me or the state of current affairs? But because I know him [Kim Jo-kwang-su], I can tell you this. Whether you are pleased with this or not, this is the story of the world that sexual minorities, including myself, live through, who dine, take classes, study, and have debates with with all of you. This is another side of the current affairs of the society we live in.

Yes, I am a sexual minority. I am a male to female transgender person and I am bisexual. I am a woman. I am of the “880,000 Won” generation. I am a college student. I am one of the inheritors of the working class. What more names can you call me by? There will be no end if you tried to enumerate them one by one. It’s not just me, but probably all of you are living in the present, being called by numerous names.

But I am not okay, not at peace at any moment, whichever name I am being called. Today’s Korean society not only can’t enact an anti-discrimination law, but discriminates against sexual minorities on a daily basis, throws rampant unfair criticism and hatred towards females, exploits the young generation, forces college students to be absorbed with employment instead of academics. Which name should I be called in order to be at ease?

Someone asked us this. Are you guys Annyeong, whether we are doing well. That’s what I’m saying. Are we all well when we’re relieved that anothers’ pain is “not mine,” growing accustomed to closing our eyes and blocking our ears in order to protect our own lives? How well can we be in a cold-hearted world when it continuously presses us to give up empathy?

I’m not saying that we all should pour out on the streets and start throwing stones. It’s just that, if this story of asking whether all of us living today are Annyeong (doing well) provides an opportunity to look into the face of the person next to you and call their name, I think this has been worthwhile. As the world becomes lonelier, I think, contrary to our belief, the way for us to become ‘well’ is nearby. Right now, please ask the person next to you, “Are you well?”

Translation of terms used in Kang Eun Ha’s note (via Omona They Didn’t blog):

T/N: Annyeong: the literal definition of the greeting is ‘a state of tranquility’

T/N: 880,000 Won Generation refers to the demographic of Korea in their 20’s that suffered employment instability around 2007. Multiplying the average paycheck of part time workers, 1,190,000 won (1130 USD), by the average salary rate for people in their 20s, 73%, results in 880,000 Won. This is the first amongst many generations in Korea to play the “Game of the Winner Takes All.”

This term was first used in the book 880,000 Won Generation, published in August, 2007. The author, Woo Suk-hoon says “Only the top 5% of people in their 20s will have a stable job above middle management and the others will live on part time employment with an average wage of 880,000 Won.” [naver encyclopedia/ MK Business News]

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