Korea, Republic of: Treatment of homosexuals, including legislation, availability of state protection and support services

Homosexuality is not criminalized in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) (Fridae 29 May 2009; ILGA May 2009; Gay Times n.d.), although various sources note that homosexuals face discrimination (ABC News 27 May 2009; The Korea Times 9 Dec. 2008; Fridae 9 Oct. 2008). In particular, gay rights sources claim that many gay Koreans believe they must stay hidden and not publicly reveal their sexuality (ibid. 16 June 2009; Gay Times n.d.). Moreover, homosexuality is reportedly seen as a taboo subject (ABC News 27 May 2009; The Korea Times 9 Dec. 2008; Fridae 29 May 2008). Two gay rights sources report that some gay websites are “censored” (IGLHRC Jan. 2008; Pink News 9 Dec. 2008).

According to reports, a few celebrities (ABC News 27 May 2009; Fridae 9 Oct. 2008), a policeman (ibid. 11 Jan. 2008) and a national politician (ibid. 18 Mar. 2008) have publicly come out, although they have had difficulties in being accepted (ABC News 27 May 2009; Fridae 9 Oct. 2008). In October 2008, after a openly gay actor appeared to have commited suicide, the police stated that the actor’s death reflected negative public attitudes towards homosexuals (Fridae 9 Oct. 2008; The Korea Times 8 Oct. 2008). According to Fridae, a Hong Kong-based media company that uses its website to report on news affecting homosexuals in Asia, the National Human Rights Commission produced an animated film in 2008 dealing with the discrimination faced by South Korean homosexuals (Fridae 9 Oct. 2008). A television show which documented gay Koreans coming out to friends and relatives was also broadcast in 2008 (ABC News 27 May 2009; Fridae 3 June 2008).

Gay rights news sources report that there has been some movement towards acceptance of homosexuality in recent years in South Korean society (Fridae 16 June 2009; Pink News 9 Dec. 2008). According to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), an international non-governmental organization (NGO) which advocates for gay rights, South Korean policies on issues related to homosexuality are “relatively progressive” (IGLHRC Jan. 2008).

According to the gay travel website Gay Times, there is reportedly “an active gay scene” in many of the larger cities of South Korea, especially Seoul and Pusan (Gay Times n.d.). Fridae reports that Seoul has “scores of venues for gay men” and many cafĂ© bars and clubs catering to lesbians and bisexual women (Fridae 18 Mar. 2008). The gay community holds an annual Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) in Seoul (KQCF n.d.; Fridae 16 June 2009). In June 2009, the Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary with its largest march yet, involving an estimated 1,500 participants (ibid. 16 June 2009). However, many of those who attended the 2009 Festival reportedly used pseudonyms and made it clear that they did not want to be photographed (ibid. 16 June 2009).

Legislation and state protection

Homosexuality is technically legal in South Korea (Fridae 29 May 2009; ILGA May 2009; Gay Times n.d.) as it not specifically mentioned in either the South Korean Constitution or the civil penal code (Pink News 9 Dec. 2008; GlobalGayz n.d.). However, homosexual acts between soldiers are punishable by a maximum of one year imprisonment under the military penal code (IGLHRC 14 May 2009; On Top Magazine 21 Nov. 2008; Pink News 17 Nov. 2008). The South Korean constitutional court was asked in November 2008 to review the provisions against homosexuality in the military (IGLHRC 14 May 2009; On Top Magazine 21 Nov. 2008; Pink News 17 Nov. 2008). According to IGLHRC, as of May 2009, the court had not made any judgement on the request (14 May 2009). Military service is mandatory for male citizens of Korea (ABC News 27 May 2009; On Top Magazine 21 Nov. 2008).

In 2007, a proposed anti-discrimination law was introduced, but provisions providing protection for gays and lesbians, among others, were removed due to pressure from Christian groups (IGLHRC Jan. 2008; Fridae 18 Mar. 2008; see also ABC News 27 May 2009). However, the modified bill was withdrawn after protests from Korean and international gay rights groups and was not reintroduced after the election of President Lee Myung-bak (Fridae 3 June 2008).

Information on protection offered to homosexuals by authorities was not found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. However, gay activists have expressed concern about the election of President Lee who stated to the media in 2007 that “homosexuality is abnormal” and that the only “normal union is between a man and woman” (Fridae 29 May 2009; IGLHRC Jan. 2008).

Support services

Several gay rights groups exist in South Korea: the Lesbian Counselling Center, based in the Jongno-gu district of Seoul, provides counselling to lesbians (Galbijim n.d.) and Chingusai (Between Friends), is a gay men’s rights group (Chingusai n.d.; The Korea Times 9 Dec. 2008). The group, also based in the Jongno-gu district, was founded in 1994 to advocate for homosexual rights and to offer “a safe haven” for gay people (Chingusai n.d.). The Korean Sexual-Minority Culture and Rights Center (KSCRC) aims to protect and promote the well being of Korean sexual minorities (KSCRC n.d.). The Lesbian Institute for Lesbians (LIFL) advocates for gay women (LIFL May 2004). Two groups for gay youth, Rateen (Rainbow Teen) (Fridae 16 June 2009) and Queer Junior (The Korea Times 9 Dec. 2008) reportedly also exist. In addition, the Democratic Labor Party has shown its support for gay rights and has presented a gay member for election to the National Assembly (ibid.; Fridae 18 Mar. 2008).

Several gay rights groups formed a coalition, the Alliance Against Homophobia and Discrimination Against Sexual Minorities, to lobby that specific provisions in the proposed anti-discrimination law be reinstated (IGLHRC Jan. 2008). According to IGLHRC, the Alliance has also worked with human rights lawyers to develop a new anti-discrimination bill (ibid). IGLHRC also indicates that a “South Korean Queer Activist Camp” was being planned in 2008 (ibid.). Information on current activities of the Alliance or about the Camp was not found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

by Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa
Source – refworld