Why South Korea Can’t Pass Anti-discrimination Laws

By Hyein Ellen Cho and Eva Rose Richards, a lecturer in Korean Studies at the Monash University and a graduate student in Korean Studies at Yonsei University

South Korea is one of only two countries in the developed world without anti-discrimination laws. Hyein Ellen Cho and Eva Rose Richards examine why it has been difficult for Korean legislators to adopt fundamental gender and sexual preference protections.

South Korea and Japan are the only countries in the OECD to lack an anti-discrimination law. International organisations such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have urged South Korea to enact comprehensive anti-discrimination to further build upon the progress made in addressing issues of equality, racism and xenophobia. However, the National Assembly has failed to pass comprehensive anti-discrimination measures despite receiving 11 draft bills since 2006.

Why is it difficult to establish an anti-discrimination structure in South Korea?  We detail some reasons below.

Gender and domestic politics

President Yoon Suk Yeol, during his run for presidency, promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in an attempt to attract young male voters. He also stated that “‘systemic structural discrimination based on gender doesn’t exist in South Korea”, despite South Korea experiencing the largest gender pay gap among OECD countries every year for almost 25 years and sitting at the bottom of The Economist’s glass ceiling index for the past decade. He has further claimed that feminism is to blame for the nation’s low birth rate, arguing that it hinders the establishment of strong relationships between men and women, a stance that has sparked anger among many feminist and human rights groups.

Upon entering office, Yoon eliminated government gender quotas, emphasising that hiring decisions would be based on merit rather than gender. Only three women were appointed to Yoon’s 19-member cabinet.

Gender divides and public discourse

Opposition to feminism is not new in South Korea – but it has increased during the past few years. In some quarters, feminism is considered a ‘dirty word’. K-Pop stars, for example, are often highly criticised by anti-feminist groups for reading books or wearing slogans that are associated with feminism. The rise of anti-feminist sentiment among young Korean men can be seen in the results of a 2019 survey by local media outlet SisaIN. Its results show that 62.3 percent of men in their 20s do not believe feminism is a movement to achieve equal status for men and women; rather, 78.9 percent agreed that feminism was about ‘female supremacy’.

Both men and women fear being labelled feminist, due to an overwhelming perception that Korean feminists are radical, often explicitly or implicitly rejecting male allies, or otherwise simply too intimidating.

Another issue is that the gender equality and diversity discourse is framed by a binary ideological view of the traditional designation and roles of man and woman. Non-binary gender identities, or those otherwise outside this structure, are largely left invisible and not a part of the broader political dialogue.

Christian Conservatives and Anti-LGBTQIA+ Sentiment

There is a concerning lack of attention given to other genders and sexualities outside of cisgender heterosexual men and women. This, in turn, means that there is a lack of diversity and inclusion policies and practices. LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to experience discrimination and backlash, as they lack structural/systemic support and are marginalised both socially and in policy.

An example can be found in this year’s Seoul Queer Culture Festival, which is an annual celebration of LGBTQIA+ culture held to celebrate and promote diversity and inclusion for these communities in Korea.  Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and the Seoul Metropolitan Government made the decision to refuse permission for the use of Seoul Plaza, instead giving the space to Christian groups for a counter-protest. More recently, right-wing civic groups and parents in the Chungnam province have intensively petitioned the local library to dispose of certain books for children and adolescents related to sex education and sexual identity, arguing that public libraries should not justify or promote homosexuality or promote the premature sexualisation of children.

Conservative Christian groups in Korea are an influential and politically engaged voting bloc. Their opposition to same-sex marriage or even LGBTQIA+ visibility has been a major barrier to legislative protections of LGBTQIA+ rights. Leftist or activist groups advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights struggle to compete with the influential voices of conservative Christian groups, creating a contentious, divided discourse and fuelling public narratives that verge on culture war.

Indifference or fear of being labelled as a LGBTQIA+ ally?

The conservative turn in Korea and COVID-era culture-war discourses that blamed the spread of COVID-19 on foreigners and gay men in clubs in Itaewon (a Seoul neighbourhood known for its multicultural atmosphere and vibrant nightlife) have amplified anxiety over participation in LGBTQIA+ events due to the potential repercussions for personal and professional lives. There is an overwhelming attitude among even liberal-leaning members of the public expressed as “I accept them just fine, but I can’t get involved personally” that allows the anti-gay voice to seem louder.

As loud as the voice of these conservative groups is, the larger barrier for LGBTQIA+ Koreans is overall political indifference from the broader community, particularly young people (called the MZ Generation in Korean), who report alienation and disengagement with the political system at large. Because participation in these events carries personal social risk for Korean people, the Seoul Queer Parade has strict guidelines for filming and reporting at their events, as well as forbidding specific media entities outright. So, for many Korean people, publicly campaigning for an anti-discrimination law would be too large a risk.

Structural barriers for same-sex, married couples

This year, a Korean lesbian couple, Kim Se-yeon and Kim Kyu-jin, welcomed a daughter through IVF procedure performed in Belgium. The procedure could not be undertaken within Korea because support for sperm donation and IVF is only available to legally married, heterosexual couples. This marks the first time in Korean history that a lesbian couple publicly revealed the birth of a child.

This event has been internationally celebrated as a milestone for LGBTQIA+ people, and specifically their domestic relationships and visibility in Korea. It comes on the heels of the landmark judgement in the Seoul High Court in February this year, where Korea legally recognised same-sex couples for the first time by equally applying health insurance rights to a same-sex couple.

Despite this public milestone giving impetus to equality and inclusion by changing people's perspectives on LGBTQIA+ couples, Se-yeon, non-biological mother to the child, continues to face structural/systemic barriers to participating in her child’s life, having no legal parental rights, and being ineligible for parental leave.

Future Prospects

Korea faces other pressing issues as well, including having the lowest birth rate in the world, long working hours (Koreans working some of the longest hours in the world), rising costs, gender inequality, and ideological conflicts discouraging marriage and childbirth for most young people. The interlocking nature of these issues means it is difficult to address one without a response to the others, adding to policy complexity and social tension.

More broadly, ensuring sexual and gender diversity are protected is important, but anti-discrimination laws also would play a crucial role in safeguarding the increasing number of immigrants and foreigners residing in Korea. The proposed construction of a mosque in Daehyeon-dong, Daegu has triggered extremely negative reactions and Islamophobic opposition from locals, and currently there are no policies in place that can adequately deal with these discriminatory practices against minority groups.

The passage of anti-discrimination laws in South Korea would not necessarily guarantee immediate systemic changes. Nevertheless, anti-discrimination structures would serve as a foundation for advancing policies of inclusion for various marginalised communities in Korea. Aside from its moral justification, inclusion promises to contribute to a more resilient, creative, and prosperous society.

Hyein Ellen Cho is a lecturer in Korean Studies and a lead researcher at the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Monash University.

Eva Rose Richards is a graduate student in Korean Studies at Yonsei University, South Korea, and a member of the Monash University Korean Studies Research Hub.