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LGBT rights in South Korea

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Title: LGBT rights in South Korea  
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Subject: Harisu, LGBT rights in Asia, LGBT rights in North Korea, LGBT rights by country or territory, Index of South Korea-related articles
Collection: Lgbt in South Korea, Lgbt Rights by Country, Lgbt Rights in Asia
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LGBT rights in South Korea

LGBT rights in South Korea
South Korea
Same-sex sexual activity legal? No laws against homosexuality in recorded Korean history
Gender identity/expression Transsexual persons allowed to change legal gender
Military service Homosexuality not condoned by military. All male citizens are conscripted into service and subject to military's policies regarding homosexuality
(see below)
Discrimination protections None
Family rights
Recognition of
No recognition of same-sex relationships

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in South Korea face legal challenges and discrimination not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not entitled to the same legal protections available to heterosexuals.

Homosexuality in South Korea is not specifically mentioned in either the South Korean Constitution or in the Civil Penal Code. Article 31 of the Korean Human Rights Committee Law states that "no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation." However, Article 92 of the Military Penal Code, which is currently under a legal challenge, singles out sexual relations between members of the same sex as "sexual harassment", punishable by a maximum of one year in prison. The Military Penal Code does not make a distinction between consensual and non-consensual crimes and names consensual intercourse between homosexual adults as "reciprocal rape" (Hangul상호강간; hanja相互强姦). But a military court ruled in 2010 that this law is illegal, saying that homosexuality is a strictly personal issue. This ruling was appealed to South Korea's constitutional court, which has not yet made a decision.[1]

Transgender people are allowed to have sex reassignment surgery in Korea after age 20, and can change their gender information on official documents.[2] Harisu is South Korea's first transgender entertainer, and in 2002 became only the second person in South Korea to legally change genders.

General awareness of homosexuality remained low among the Korean public until recently, with increased awareness and debate coming to the issue, as well as gay-themed entertainment in mass media and recognizable figures and celebrities, such as Hong Seok-cheon, coming out in public. But gay and lesbian Koreans still face difficulties, and many prefer not to reveal their gay identity to their family, friends or co-workers.


  • History 1
  • Media 2
  • Discrimination protections 3
  • Military service 4
  • Transgender rights 5
  • Everyday life 6
  • Public opinion 7
  • Censorship issues 8
  • LGBT Human Rights Organizations 9
  • Summary table 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13



South Korea's first gay-themed magazine, Buddy, launched in 1998[3] and several popular gay-themed commercials have also aired.[4]

Paving the way for television was the 2005 South Korean film The King and the Clown, a gay-themed movie based on a court affair between a king and his male jester. The movie became the highest grossing in Korean film history, surpassing both Silmido and Taegukgi. The Korean title for The King and the Clown is "왕의 남자" which translates as "The King's Man" with the implication that it refers to the man as being the King's lover. Other recent movies include 2008 film A Frozen Flower (Korean: 쌍화점) and No Regret (Korean: 후회하지 않아) by celebrated director Leesong hee-il (Korean: 이송희일), which starred in the 2006 Busan International Film Festival.[5]

Mainstream Korean television shows have begun to feature gay characters and themes. In 2010, the soap opera Life Is Beautiful (Korean: 인생은 아름다워) premiered on SBS broadcast TV, becoming the first prime-time drama to explore a gay male couple's relationship as their unwitting families set them up on dates with women.[6] That same year, Personal Taste (Korean: 개인의 취향, also "Personal Preference") was broadcast on MBC and revolved around a straight man who pretends to be gay to become a woman's roommate.[7] Before these was Coming Out, which debuted on cable channel tvN in late night in 2008, in which a gay actor and straight actress counseled gays with publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation.[8]

Openly LGBT entertainment figures include model and actress Harisu, a trans woman who makes frequent appearances in television.[9] Actor Hong Seok-cheon,[10] after coming out in 2000 and being fired from his job[11] has since returned to his acting career. He has appeared in several debate programs in support of gay rights.[12]

Popular actor Kim Ji-hoo, who was openly gay, hanged himself on October 8, 2008. Police attributed his suicide to public prejudice against homosexuality.[13]

“The Daughters of Bilitis” a KBS Drama Special about the lives of lesbian women, aired on August 7, 2011. Immediately after it aired, internet message boards lit up with outraged protesters who threatened to boycott the network. The production crew eventually shut down the online re-run service in four days after the broadcast.

“XY She,” a KBS Joy cable talk show about MTF transgender individuals, was virtually cancelled after its first episode due to public opposition. The network cited concern over attacks on MCs and other cast-members as the official reason for cancellation.

In 2013 movie director Kim Jho Kwang-soo and his partner Kim Seung-hwan became the first South Korean gay couple to publicly wed, although it was not a legally recognized marriage. [14]

Discrimination protections

Human Rights Committee Law prohibits discrimination on a variety of grounds, including sexual orientation[15] but currently, there is no direct anti-discrimination law which includes prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The National Human Rights Commission first introduced the Anti-Discrimination Act in July 2006 to the Korean government. The government enacted TFT (Task Force Team) configuration for the act, proceeding to transfer it to the Department of Justice in June 2007. Following the Department of Justice’s announcement regarding the legislation, “Headquarters Against Homosexuality” and “Missionary Union to Stop the Anti-Discrimination Act” launched in opposition to the Act. On October 31, the Department of Justice informally decided to remove seven clauses related to sexual orientation. Upon hearing the news, activists held an emergency session on the same day to form “An Urgent Action Counteracting the Anti-Discrimination Act and Homophobia.” In 2010, the Department of Justice promoted TFT configuration to push for the Anti-Discrimination Act once more. In response, activists launched a solidarity in support of the Anti-Discrimination Act in December. The influence of the Christian church caused the Department of Justice to abandon the effort. In 2013, more than 50 members of the Democratic Party introduced a motion to include sexual orientation in the Anti-Discrimination Act, but later withdrew the motion due to attacks from the conservative religious community.

Military service

Military service is mandatory for all male citizens in South Korea. Enlistees are drafted through the Military Manpower Administration (MMA; Korean: 병무청) which administers a "psychology test" at the time of enlistment that includes several questions regarding the enlistee's sexual preferences. Homosexual military members in active duty are categorized as having a "personality disorder" or "behavioural disability" and can either be institutionalized or dishonorably discharged, although this was recently ruled illegal by a military court. The issue has been appealed to Korea's constitutional court.[1]

Transgender rights

The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled that in order for a person to be eligible for a sex-change operation they must be over 20 years of age, single and without children.[16] In the case of MTF (Male-to-Female) gender reassignment operations, the person must prove issues related to draft resolved by either serving or being exempted. On June 22, 2006 however, the Supreme Court ruled that transgender individuals who had undergone successful gender reassignment surgery have the right to declare themselves in their new gender in all legal documents. This includes the right to request a correction of their gender-on-file in all public and government records such as the census registry.[17] On March 2013 Seoul Western District Court ruled that five female-to-male transgender individuals can be registed as male without sex reassignment surgery.[18]

Everyday life

The Korean word for "homosexual" is Dongseongaeja (Hangul동성애자; hanja同性愛者, lit. "same-sex lover"). A less politically correct term is Dongseongyeonaeja ("동성연애자" 同性戀愛者). South Korean homosexuals however, make frequent use of the term ibanin ("이반인"; "異般人" also "二般人") which can be translated as "different type person"/"second-class citizen", and is usually shortened to iban ("이반"; "異般").[19] The word is a direct play on the word ilban-in (일반인; 一般人) meaning "normal person" or "ordinary person". In addition, English loanwords are used in South Korea to describe LGBTQ people. These words are simple transliterations of English words into hangeul: lesbian is lejeubieon (레즈비언), gay is gei (게이), queer is kuieo (퀴어), and transgender is teuraenseujendeo (트랜스젠더). Bisexual is "yangseongaeja" (양성애자; 兩性愛者). As of 2013, bisexuality has only been studied once in the country, though there is a rising number who claim a bisexual identity.[20]

Homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Korean society and same-sex couples are seldom if ever seen in public. This lack of visibility is also reflected in the relatively low profile maintained by many gay clubs in South Korea. They are concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Seoul's historic Jongno, the "college district" Sincheon-dong, or the foreign sector Itaewon (especially in the section known as "Homo-hill").[21] Busan and the other large cities also maintain their own gay nightlife.

Public opinion

South Koreans have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality and LGBT rights in the past decade, even if conservative attitudes remain dominant. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 39% of people believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to only 18% who held this view in 2007. South Korea recorded the most significant shift towards greater acceptance of homosexuality among the 39 countries surveyed worldwide. Significantly, there is a very large age gap on this issue: in 2013, 71% of South Koreans aged between 18-29 believed that homosexuality should be accepted, compared to only 16% of South Koreans aged 50 and over.[22]

In April 2013, a Gallup poll, which commissioned from a conservative Christian group, found that 25% of South Koreans supported same-sex marriage, while 67% opposed it and 8% did not know or answer.[23] However, a May 2013 Ipsos poll found that 26% of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage and another 31% supported other form of recognition for same-sex couples.[24]

Censorship issues

The Ministry of Information and Communication. That practice has since been reversed.[25]

LGBT Human Rights Organizations

Rainbow Action (launched May 2008) is a coalition of LGBT organizations of Korea. It includes 17 participating organizations, in addition to unaffiliated individuals:

  • GongGam Human Rights Law Foundation
  • International Human Rights News “Tong”
  • Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (DongInRyun)
  • Lezpa, a Korean lesbian community radio group
  • Crossing the Whole Damn World—LGBTAIQ Totally Queer
  • Collective for Sexual Minority Cultures PINKS
  • Unni Network
  • Byunnal, a Lesbian Human Rights Group at Ewha Womans University
  • Network for Glocal Activism
  • Sexual Politics Committee in the New Progressive Party
  • Christian Solidarity for a World without Discrimination (Chasegiyeon)
  • Sexual Minority Committee in the Unified Progressive Party
  • Chingusai—Korean Gay Men’s Human Rights Group
  • Lesbian Counseling Center in South Korea
  • Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center (KSCRC)
  • LGBT Human Rights Committee in Hanyang University
  • Solidarity for HIV/AIDS Human Rights, Nanuri+
  • Unaffiliated individual activists: Julie, Carlo, Tari, Tori

Among the above, the only organizations with full-time activists are DongInRyun, Chingusai, KSCRC, Unni Network, Network for Glocal Activism. With the exception of the Queer Culture Festival, the operating budgets of these organizations are supported by membership dues or donations.

  • DongInRyun: two full-time activists, annual budget of 50 million won to 100 million won. 100% of membership dues go to the project budget.
  • Chingusai: two full-time activists, annual budget of 100 million won. 90% of membership dues and donations go to the budget.
  • KSCRC: four full-time activists, annual budget of 80 million. 100% of membership dues and donations go to the business and project budgets.
  • Unni Network: one full-time activist, annual budget of 50 million won to 100 million won. 100% of membership dues and donations go to the project budget.
  • Network for Glocal Activism: two full-time activists, annual budget of 100 million won. Close to 100% of membership dues and donations go to the project budget.

Summary table

Same-sex sexual activity legal Yes (No record of anti-gay laws in history)
Equal age of consent Yes (No record of anti-gay laws in history)
Anti-discrimination laws in employment No
Anti-discrimination laws in the provision of goods and services No
Anti-discrimination laws in all other areas (incl. indirect discrimination, hate speech) No
Same-sex marriages No
Recognition of same-sex couples No
Step-child adoption by same-sex couples No
Joint adoption by same-sex couples No
Gays and lesbians allowed to serve openly in the military Yes
Right to change legal gender Yes (Since 2006)
Access to IVF for lesbians No
Commercial surrogacy for gay male couples No
MSM allowed to donate blood Yes

See also


  1. ^ a b "Will homosexuality be accepted in barracks?".  
  2. ^ "Being gay in South Korea". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  3. ^ "żÜąšŔÎŔť Ŕ§ÇŘ". 1998-02-20. Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  4. ^§ion_id=001&menu_id=001
  5. ^ "네이버 영화 :: 영화와 처음 만나는 곳". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  6. ^ "Saju and death of a transgender". The Korea Times. 
  7. ^ "Lee Min-ho to Star in New MBC Drama". The Korea Times. Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  8. ^ "'"Actor Hong Suk-Chun to Host 'Coming Out. The Korea Times. 
  9. ^ Harisu
  10. ^ Hanson, Lisa (2004-06-26). "Gay community at crossroads".  
  11. ^ 홍석천, 이성애자 마초 변신 "놀랍죠?" (in Korean). 2006-09-07. Retrieved 2007-01-01. 
  12. ^§ion_id=001&menu_id=001
  13. ^ Park Si, Joo. Gay Actor Found Dead in Apparent Suicide, The Korea Times, October 8, 2008. Retrieved on November 4, 2010.
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Human Rights Committee Law of South Korea". National Assembly of South Korea. 19 May 2011. Retrieved 27 December 2013. 
  16. ^ "사람과사람 | People to People". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  17. ^§ion_id=001&menu_id=001
  18. ^ "Landmark legal ruling for South Korean transgenders". Hankyoreh. 2013-03-16. 
  19. ^ Kirikiri, the Lesbian Counseling Center in Korea; dead link as of 2009-01-17
  20. ^ "Queer Identity and Sexuality in South Korea: A Critical Analysis via Male Bisexuality". Seoul National University. Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  21. ^ "Gay Seoul Gay Resources and Travel Tips in Korea by Utopia". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  22. ^ [2]
  23. ^ South Korea easing homophobic views on news of gay 'wedding'
  24. ^ "Same-Sex Marriage". Ipsos. 7–21 May 2013. 
  25. ^ "Internet Censorship in South Korea". Information Policy. 

External links

  • Buddy, Korean LGBT Magazine
  • Chingusai, one of Korea's oldest gay men's organizations
  • Korean Queer Culture Festival
  • Korean Sexual-Minority Culture and Rights Center
  • Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea
  • RAinbowTEEN (Rateen), Youth Sexual Minority Community
  • Lesbian Counseling Center in South Korea


  • From 50 to 1,500: Korea Queer Culture Festival turns 10 by Matt Kelley June 16, 2009
  • South Korea's legal trans-formation by Matt Kelley and Mike Lee May 29, 2009
  • The deadly reality of South Korea's virtual world by Matt Kelley and Mike Lee October 17, 2008
  • 2 openly gay, trans South Korean actors commit suicide by Matt Kelley October 9, 2008
  • Seoul's spring forecast: More visibility for Korea's queers by Matt Kelley June 3, 2008
  • South Korea sees first openly gay politician, but challenges persist for the nation's lesbians by Matt Kelley March 18, 2008
  • Seoul policeman comes out, fights prejudice by News Editor January 11, 2008
  • Exclusion from non-discrimination bill mobilises Korea’s LGBT community by Matt Kelley November 23, 2007
  • 2007 Seoul LGBT film festival, june 6 to 10 by News Editor June 6, 2007
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