Neuropsychiatry as Area Studies: Han Tong-se (1930–1973) and the Diagnostics of Gender/Sexual "Deviance" in Cold War South Korea

Todd A. Henry University of California, San Diego
Abstract: This essay examines the transpacific career of Han Tong-se (1930–1973), an elite neuropsychiatrist who produced objectifying and alienating formulations of nonnormative sexuality and gender variance in Cold War South Korea. It reviews a number of his medical cases and his socioscientific worldview in the overlapping contexts of neo-Freudian theories, capitalist development, and "mass dictatorship." Dr. Han’s instrumentalist adaptation of a binary model of area studies, comparing the United States to his native homeland, allowed this scientific authority to disavow queerness as an inherent part of South Korean society. Dr. Han thus encouraged citizens to accept heteropatriarchal practices and cisgender embodiments as the national essence at a time of dizzying social and cultural change.

Part of a larger book project, this short essay illuminates understudied ways in which nonnormative sexuality and gender variance firmly undergirded authoritarian development in Cold War South Korea.[1] The Profit of Queerness traces how media discourses, the sexual sciences, and regulatory practices converged in the production of heteropatriarchal life courses that, as normalizing forms of "mass dictatorship," advanced state supremacy and capitalist production.[2] Although not always operating in coordination, these cross-cutting schemas of normativity played a crucial role in extracting symbolic value from unruly bodies, which were subjected to public exposure and ridicule as well as invasive examination and investigation. To illuminate these biopolitical practices of containment, the present essay focuses on Han Tong-se (1930–1973), an elite neuropsychiatrist and area studies expert. His cosmopolitan credentials from research and work in the United States launched Dr. Han’s career as a professor at Seoul National University, South Korea’s most famous institution of higher learning.[3] Rather than sympathetically listening to the subjectivities of patients deemed deviant in his pathologizing framework, Dr. Han, a social conservative, deployed an extractive model of homosexuality and transgenderism. This defensive approach to the perceived monstrosity of queerness (but which Dr. Han never named as such), led to the purification of national culture, thereby (re)establishing heteropatriarchy as the moral substructure of authoritarian development.

The Profit of Queerness traces how media discourses, the sexual sciences, and regulatory practices converged in the production of heteropatriarchal life courses that, as normalizing forms of "mass dictatorship," advanced state supremacy and capitalist production.

Throughout his short but influential career, Dr. Han took advantage of what I call his "transpacific positionality" to become a cross-cultural broker of modernizing knowledge.[4] Part of a small but powerful group of doctors, he travelled to the United States on several occasions where, between 1956 and 1968, he spent nearly a decade as a medical resident, hospital employee, and senior fellow. While studying and working at America’s leading institutions, he acquired the diagnostic skills of dynamic psychiatry.[5] After returning to Seoul, he applied a neo-Freudian framework, often retroactively, to analyze the emotional disorders of fellow South Koreans. However, because his clinical studies were filtered through a Cold War epistemology of area studies, he tended to approach the purported deviance of patients in a simplified way that highlighted stark national differences, while downplaying complex subnational dynamics.[6] This transpacific position also allowed him to explain away domestic manifestations of same-sex sexuality and gender variance which, he feared, might endanger the reproductive underside of state-directed programs of industrialization. Using such frameworks, he argued that, although economically behind its Cold War ally, the sexual morality of South Korea surpassed that of the United States, whose national culture of individualism was allegedly causing homosexuality, feminism, and other disruptive phenomena (Han 1970). Even as the invocation of behavioral and social sciences facilitated American hegemony, Dr. Han’s rearticulation of these interlocking models of individual and collective development allowed him to formulate a refortified ideology of heteropatriarchy that displayed both descriptive power and prescriptive utility. Through these transpacific mediations, he redeployed American frameworks to promote his own position as a cosmopolitan medical authority, while offering a normative morality that could guide fellow citizens along the turbulent path of authoritarian development. In the end, the stigmatized bodies of queer subjects paid an especially high price in these objectifying and alienating formulations of mass dictatorship, but at least some unruly South Koreans still managed to overcome their pathologization through ingenious modes of survival and sustenance.

Dr. Han’s socioscientific worldview developed out of national character studies that had become popular among American social scientists during World War II as a way of knowing and, ultimately, defeating Japan. After 1945, Cold War exigencies led to the resuscitation of this essentialist model of national difference, which Dr. Han merged with neo-Freudian theories of individual development to produce a binary model of culture. Deploying this transwar and transpacific framework, Dr. Han cited the purported lack of homosexuality as evidence of South Korea’s relatively advanced sexual morality when compared to its hedonistic American counterpart. Providing a heteronationalist response to popular representations of queer subjects then filling the pages of newspaper weeklies, he pathologized these individuals as social deviants who, through hospitalization and other forms of "curative violence," could, quite literally, be removed, at least temporarily, from public visibility.[7]

Providing a heteronationalist response to popular representations of queer subjects then filling the pages of newspaper weeklies, [Dr. Han Tong-se (1930–1973)] pathologized these individuals as social deviants who, through hospitalization and other forms of "curative violence," could, quite literally, be removed, at least temporarily, from public visibility.

Dr. Han was one of a very few South Korean psychiatrists to address nonnormative sexuality and gender variance at the time, but minimized the statistical prevalence of these queer phenomena and pathologized their manifestations in a heteropatriarchal formulation of "wholesome modernization."[8] For example, his 1967 essay took up the unusual case of a 20-year-old man who, upon hospital admission the previous year, had amputated his penis.[9] After citing numerous Western precedents, Dr. Han drew on neo-Freudian theories about the ego’s roots in kinship structures to explain this violently emasculating act, which he articulated as part of a comparative theory on Korean families’ aggressive drives. He located the particular sociopsychiatric causes of self-destructive behaviors in Korean War traumas, a reference point in many of his Cold War psychoanalyses. Although born into a wealthy family in 1946, the male patient’s life was turned upside down after Kim Il Sung’s invasion in June of 1950. The father, a well-educated journalist, had served as the breadwinner until he was kidnapped by a North Korean soldier, but he had never been the focus of his young son’s admiration. His death left the family in poverty and catapulted the mother into a position of familial authority, but she struggled to serve as an affectionate matriarch. Having lost her husband in the war and, later, her eldest son to a swimming accident, the mother led an unstable existence, and her life as a sex worker had a profoundly negative impact on her son. Although he sought to gain her attention, she responded to his desperate gestures in hostile ways. In a later essay which reiterated the psychic aftereffects of the war, Dr. Han associated these struggles with what he described in essentialist terms as "the lack of culturally sanctioned outlets for aggression." In extreme cases, this stifling milieu, he argued, even led to family suicides.[10]

Returning to Dr. Han’s psychoanalysis, the male patient was unable to identify with a father whose death had relegated him to a weak and feminine position in his son’s eyes. Meanwhile, because his hysteric mother expressed aggressive behavior toward her son, he was also unable to create a meaningful attachment to her. Dr. Han explained this family trauma as the primary cause for his patient’s gender inversion. According to this sexological model, the son engaged in what he described as "pathological feminine identification" as a way of seeking embodied reassurances toward an insecurely gendered self. However, these self-effeminizing measures made it difficult for the young man to form romantic liaisons with women in a heterosexist society. Not long before his violent act of genital self-mutilation, he decided to sleep with a prostitute in a desperate attempt to shore up his damaged masculinity. However, this experience left him with a sexually transmitted disease and an ever-deeper sense of phallic insecurity.

Seeking to explain this overcompensatory gesture in essentialist terms of Korean families’ aggressive drives, Dr. Han used modified Freudian terms of the Oedipus complex to liken this traumatic attempt at heterosexual love to an anguished identification with his unaffectionate mother. Such misfortunes combined with a feminized body image to create a scenario in which his penis became an uncomfortable and painful appendage. In one of the only instances in which Dr. Han’s study allowed his patient to speak in his own words (but without even providing his given name, let alone a pseudonym), he reportedly conveyed to the doctor that he was, in fact, relieved to have removed his own phallus. Although his deceased father was not likely the object of his son’s castration anxiety, to use a Freudian term, Dr. Han later explained this case of penis amputation as a way of comprehending his feminized body image and, ultimately, of appeasing his superego which, in this shocking case, was inverted toward a nonnormative embodiment. In the end, however, the patient’s gender variance and his drastic attempt to conform with heteropatriarchal prescriptions through genital self-mutilation was but a pathological condition for Dr. Han, rather than an existential crisis produced by that oppressive system. Indeed, after various clinical tests, he diagnosed the emasculated man as "nonpsychotic" but functioning on a schizophrenic level.

Dr. Han’s 1970 study of sexual perversions tended to obfuscate the statistical and experiential manifestations of queerness.

In contrast to this spectacular case of nonnormative embodiment as a pathological outworking of aggressive family drives, Dr. Han’s 1970 study of sexual perversions tended to obfuscate the statistical and experiential manifestations of queerness. To contain the disruptive power of unruly life practices, Dr. Han fell back on a Cold War paradigm of area studies, but rearticulated it to produce a stabilizing morality of heteropatriarchy ultimately conducive to authoritarian development. At its core, this essentializing paradigm contrasted the predominant values of independence in the United States with those of the extended (but rapidly nuclearizing) family in South Korea. Having recently returned from nine months of study at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center, a meeting ground for Cold War area studies and transpacific knowledge exchanges, he articulated this dualistic model of national culture to argue for distinctive manifestations of social deviance—namely, that Americans experienced a relatively high rate of homosexuality as a result of inner conflicts of panic, whereas South Koreans displayed destructiveness and wildness as well as homicidal and suicidal tendencies based on aggressive, family-oriented drives.[11]

Like previous research, his 1970 study, "Sexual Perversions in Korea," relied heavily on Seoul National University Hospital data collected between 1959 and 1969, a decade when he was largely absent from South Korea. In addition to this clinical distance from patients, his analysis of a remarkably small sample size (eight individuals) from a single medical institution meant that his study was tentative at best, a limitation that Dr. Han himself admitted. He also acknowledged the intense stigma that likely prevented most South Koreans from seeking medical advice for homosexuality, thus calling into question the representative and scientific qualifications of his study. Even as he recognized these limitations, he authoritatively cited the relatively low number of patients (on average, one per year!) diagnosed with sexual perversions as evidence of the infrequency of such ailments among South Koreans, especially when compared to more prevalent cases in various Western countries.[12] Although he admitted that most domestic laws did not maintain regulatory categories that could capture infractions committed by sexual deviants, he applied the same comparative logic to criminal statistics by referencing the relatively low incidence of same-sex improprieties on the part of South Koreans. While downplaying the growing place of queerness in popular culture, he also underscored the frequency with which the Western media covered stories about the struggles of Europeans and Americans to obtain marriage equality from their respective governments. His creative adaptation of a binary model of area studies thus allowed Dr. Han to disavow nonnormative sexuality and gender variation as an inherent part of South Korean society. Although perhaps not intended as such, his heteropatriarchal diagnoses of sexual "purity" uncannily coincided with the national goals of capitalist development under authoritarian leadership, making him a reliable supporter of official norms.

In formulating this heteronationalist ideology, he not only downplayed the empirical copresence of queer subjects, but also failed to acknowledge their subcultural significance as anything other than pathological deviants.

In formulating this heteronationalist ideology, he not only downplayed the empirical copresence of queer subjects, but also failed to acknowledge their subcultural significance as anything other than pathological deviants. Repositioning himself as a transpacific anthropologist, he argued that family structures rooted in Confucian hierarchies had created considerable taboos against the public display of nonnormative desires. In North America and Western Europe, Freudians had typically explained manifestations of homosexuality as an expression of a triangular Oedipal conflict. According to his model of transcultural psychiatry, sexual deviation of this variety rarely developed in the group-oriented structure of South Korean families.[13] He extended such clannish explanations of cultural differences to society at large, an essentialist view of the nation largely recycled from Japanese scholars writing during the colonial period (1910–1945).[14] To this end, Dr. Han cited hierarchical terms emanating from long-standing Confucian traditions and used by South Koreans to refer to non-kin—i.e., older brother (hyŏng/ŏppa) and older sister (nuna/ŏnni)—to explain the purported lack of what he called an "overt oedipal constellation." In this way, he concluded that familial structures worked to repress "deviations" among South Koreans, whether expressed as homosexuality or incest. Such cultural essentialisms allowed Dr. Han to explain away the possibility of nonnormative sexuality as injurious life practices that, in his anxious view of heteropatriarchy, he grouped with inbreeding, a practice known to produce genetic disorders.

Meanwhile, a focus on same-sex practices that were perhaps more accurately understood as manifestations of alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, and other "anti-social" behaviors skewed Dr. Han’s discussion of homosexuality toward the pathological, rather than considering it an intrinsic part of South Korean society. By dwelling on mentally disturbed patients, he presented same-sex desire as a social danger requiring invasive treatment. In doing so, he downplayed how medical prescriptions of gender and sexual normativity produced bodily symptoms that powerful doctors like Dr. Han retroactively categorized as deviance.[15] As an example of this diagnostic sleight of hand, let us examine one of three troubled patients discussed in his 1970 study. The first son among six siblings, Mr. Yi had been hospitalized three times in the recent past. According to Dr. Han, his troubles began as a youngster when, in contrast to his successful siblings and professor father, he enrolled in a second-rate middle school. These experiences produced a deep sense of inferiority, and his psychological well-being further deteriorated after his father’s sudden death from cancer. Whatever the case, Dr. Han’s discussion of this patient, a young man whom he likely never met in person, is primarily framed in terms of schizophrenia rather than homosexuality and which he concluded was "latent" rather than "classic."[16] Although he made various sexual overtures toward female nurses during his third hospital stay, Dr. Han focused on the patient’s homosexual tendencies. Such "deviance" included an episode when Yi snuck into the bed of another male patient whom, at one point, he allegedly kissed. For this (mis)behavior, he was subjected on five occasions to electric shock therapy, the pain from which was so severe that the hospital staff had to suspend this "treatment." During his hospitalization, doctors also prescribed phenothiazine—a class of drug first used as an insecticide during the first half of the twentieth century, but which was later developed into an antipsychotic medication. As previously discussed, Dr. Han’s transcultural theory of psychiatric differences between nations had allowed him to argue that, as a deviant social behavior, homosexuality was virtually impossible among South Koreans. However, doctors’ responses to even "latent" expressions of same-sex affection could, in the context of hospitalization, lead to violent and even life-threatening treatments. It is no wonder that, even today, Korean queers tend to steer away from psychiatrists as practices of everyday survival, rendering them largely invisible from the pathologizing gazes of medical professionals.

Taken together, Dr. Han’s diagnoses of deviance demonstrate how a complex intermingling of social and behavioral sciences popular in the United States travelled within the capitalist circuits of the Cold War. Rather than arriving in South Korea as a coherent package of knowledge that was subsequently disseminated in toto, transpacific brokers like Dr. Han actively rearticulated these sociopsychiatric theories in local contexts of postwar recovery and authoritarian development.

Taken together, Dr. Han’s diagnoses of deviance demonstrate how a complex intermingling of social and behavioral sciences popular in the United States travelled within the capitalist circuits of the Cold War. Rather than arriving in South Korea as a coherent package of knowledge that was subsequently disseminated in toto, transpacific brokers like Dr. Han actively rearticulated these sociopsychiatric theories in local contexts of postwar recovery and authoritarian development. Adopting binary and essentialist notions of culture originating in national character studies but reinvigorated as area studies, his research highlighted the aggressive desires of South Koreans in "traditional" family structures as an explanation of their allegedly pathological behaviors. Adapting neo-Freudian theories, Dr. Han juxtaposed such "deviations" with the individualism that purportedly drove a comparatively high number of Americans toward nonnormative sexuality and gender variance. Through these transcultural lenses, Dr. Han disavowed the statistical presence of queer practices which, in addition to female emancipation, he viewed as socially disruptive. By explaining away South Korean forms of same-sex sexuality and gender variance, he ultimately argued for his country’s relatively advanced position in the capitalist world, at least in terms of its conservative morality.

His redeployment of Cold War paradigms also allowed Dr. Han to establish his cosmopolitan credentials among South Korean psychiatrists, not all of whom agreed with his essentialist views of national culture or his commanding treatment style. As one of his contemporaries (Yi Tong-sik, 1920–2014), who had similar professional experiences, including extended study in the U.S., wrote: "the therapists themselves are the cause of the patients’ alleged psychotherapeutic difficulties and not their culture or personality. . . . It is this lack of a most elementary rapport that prevents a meaningful psychotherapy" (Chang 1990). Although this essay has focused on the extractive nature of these clinical encounters for the sake of social cohesion, Dr. Han also offered similar assessments in mainstream journals and newspapers. Positioning himself as a moral handmaiden of an authoritarian state, Dr. Han encouraged readers to accept heteropatriarchal practices and cisgender embodiments as the national essence. Despite their obvious power, these pathological discourses of deviance did not always succeed in advancing the individual and collective ends of state and capital, as evidenced by Dr. Han’s critique of unruly bodies that filled the pages of popular weeklies. To be sure, such profit-making representations tended to converge with psychiatric diagnoses insofar as they reiterated cautionary tales about queer subjects who were ostensibly veering away from a heteronormative life course (Henry, forthcoming). However, even these stigmatizing representations offered "shadow readers" new opportunities to meet and interact with one another in various subcultural sites and, perhaps, to even think of themselves as part of a larger national community that undoubtedly included them. Through these resourceful strategies of survival and sustenance, even the most stigmatized members of Cold War South Korea could find some therapeutic ways to "profit" from their own untamable perversity.



  1. For a new volume that critiques the heteronormative framework of Korean Studies, see Henry (forthcoming). Many works in Queer Asian Studies have sought to provincialize the Western-centric biases of Queer Studies. For one productive example, see Liu (2015).
  2. According to mass dictatorship, Park Chung Hee (r. 1961–1979) did not simply impose a set of rules on the population, with the latter passively succumbing to its dictates. Alongside coercion, a system of persuasive power was also put into play that, especially before the implementation of the Yushin system in 1971, relied on nominally liberal politics instituted for, rather than controlled by, national citizens (or what Park himself called "administrative democracy") and various forms of mass education and social edification. It also mobilized institutions and practices of social welfare and public health, if only to promote what Lim (2011) calls the "disciplined uniformity" of anticommunism. This paper focuses on the production and maintenance of a culturally shared "common sense" rather than everyday practices of popular consent, a controversial aspect of Lim’s theory. On the contours of this paradigm, see Lee (2009). For a feminist critique of the male-centric biases of mass dictatorship theory, see Chŏng (2006).
  3. For a full biography, see Han (1977, 5–6).
  4. On transpacific as a historical analytic, see Wang (2013) and Hoskins and Nguyen (2014).
  5. On the development of postwar psychiatry in the United States, see Herman (1995).
  6. For a critical discussion of this academic paradigm, particularly as it relates to the Asia-Pacific region, see Miyoshi and Haroontunian (2002). On psychiatry’s connection to Cold War area studies, see Herman (1995, 124–152). For a similar pattern of Korean social scientists who engaged with U.S.-sponsored "modernization theory," see Brazinsky (2007, 163–88).
  7. I borrow this brilliant term from Eunjung Kim (2017).
  8. I borrow the term "wholesome modernization" from Charles R. Kim (2017).
  9. Unless otherwise mentioned, the following discussion is based on Han and Han (1967). Dr. Han’s co-author, a neuropsychiatrist at Inch’ŏn Christian Hospital, was one of the other medical professionals of his era who addressed homosexuality. See, for example, Han, Tong-su (1977).
  10. According to his binary theory of culture, U.S. capitalism allowed middle-class Americans to release pent-up frustrations in the form of everyday competition and, as a result, social deviation among Westerns did not occur among family members, but instead did so within individuals—for example, in the relatively frequent expression of homosexuality ([Han, Tong-se] 1972).
  11. For an example of this culturally specific trauma among one of his American homosexual patients, see Han (1964). On the development of the East-West Center, see Koikari (2015, 100–145).
  12. To substantiate this claim, he referenced the following two British studies in addition to the American Kinsey report and another study on Sweden: Moran and Abe (1969a,b).
  13. A similar explanation of the Oedipus complex in (South) Korean families appears in Chang (1979). For a classic study of the American case, see Bayer (1981).
  14. On Japanese views of Korean culture during the colonial period, see, for example, Atkins (2010). For one (South) Korean scientist who redeployed colonial period data in the creation of post-colonial knowledge, see Kim (2016).
  15. For the authoritative role of American doctors in containing homosexuality, see Herbst Lewis (2010). On the power of scientific knowledge to emancipate sexual minorities in the United States, see Minton (2002).
  16. Only the third patient discussed in this study fits this "classic" definition of homosexuality. Although a masculine-identified woman attracted to other women, the first patient also struggled with psychological problems, including drug addiction.


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