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FACT SHEET: LGBTQ Rights in South Korea

South Korea has the makings of a broad legal framework to protect LGBT people from discrimination and violence, but it lacks provisions for enforcement and remedy.

You can help by writing to the Korean president and urging the government to institute tangible mechanisms to hold perpetrators of anti-LGBT discrimination accountable. Only then can the LGBT community in South Korea receive the equal protection from the laws that they deserve.

In Korean society, same-sex relationships are not recognized or widely accepted.

  • According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 58% of Koreans opposed same-sex marriage, only 34% supported, and 8% were undecided.
  • The South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage in a televised debate during his presidential campaign.

LGBTQ Rights

LGBTQ Legal Status

  • South Korea does not explicitly prohibit homosexual relations; however, there are few protections that guard against actual discrimination.
  • South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage or legal unions.
  • Same-sex couples are denied rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, such as medical self-determination, pensions, and inheritance.
  • Since same-sex couples are unable to marry, they are also unable to adopt children, since “single” parents are generally prohibited from doing so.
  • Korean courts can grant a legal change of gender, but only if the applicant complies with stringent requirements that deprive them of other civil liberties. People also cannot change their gender in the official family relations register if they are currently married or have a minor child.

Anti-Discrimination Protections

  • South Korea’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, religion, or social status, which the Ministry of Justice has said applies to LGBT people. However, these “protections” act as rights without any enforcement power or remedy behind them:
    • South Korean laws neither specify punishment for people who discriminate against LGBT people nor provide remedies to victims of discrimination or violence.
    • The National Human Rights Commission of Korea is tasked with protecting LGBT rights, but it too lacks any enforcement power, and its recommendations are non-binding.
  • Over the past decade, pushback from Korea’s strong conservative and Christian lobby has repeatedly foiled attempts to pass an LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination law.

In the Military

  • Under military laws, same-sex relations are automatically deemed harassment (regardless of consent) and punishable by up to a year in prison and dishonorable discharge.
  • In April 2017, the South Korean military began identifying and punishing gay military servicemembers by confiscating cell phones of suspected gay soldiers and demanding that they identify others on their dating apps and contact list.
  • There have been repeated incidents of gay servicemen facing beatings and bullying inside army bases, shrouded from public sight.

Freedom of Expression

  • Samsung and Google banned popular gay social networking apps from their online stores. In 2013, Samsung rejected the gay app Hornet from its South Korean store, citing local values and laws that disallow LGBTQ content. The Google Play store has blocked Jack’d.
  • The government denied the charity status application of an LGBT organization for three years until 2017, where the Supreme Court ordered the government to reverse its discriminatory stance.

Signs of Progress

  • According to a 2017 Gallup Korea poll, 90% of Koreans surveyed said they supported equal employment opportunities for sexual minorities.
  • In 2015, a court overturned the Seoul Metropolitan Police’s decision to ban a gay pride parade, stating that “unless there is a clear risk of danger to the public, preventing the demonstration is not allowed and should be the absolute last resort.”
  • In 2014, South Korea voted in favor of a UN resolution aimed at overcoming discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • In 2003, the Youth Protection Committee stopped classifying homosexuality as “harmful and obscene.” Previously, the law had justified censorship of LGBTQ websites, with the “logic” of protecting youth from homosexual content.

Call to Action

Write the Korean president to support of LGBTQ rights.

Send a message to the Korean government in support of LGBTQ protections—encouraging policymakers to do right by the country’s constitution and establish tangible mechanisms for uplifting and enforcing LGBT equality.

President of South Korea Moon Jae-In
Address: 1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03048, Republic of Korea
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/moonbyun1
Twitter: https://twitter.com/moonriver365
Website: https://english1.president.go.kr/util/contact_us.php

The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance is a federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander (APIs) organizations. NQAPIA builds the capacity of local LGBT API groups, develops leadership, promotes visibility, educates the community, invigorates grassroots organizing, encourages collaborations, and challenges anti-LGBT bias and racism. NQAPIA acknowledges the pro bono assistance of Weil Gotshal & Manages LLP in researching country laws. Additional sources include Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International.