While many countries have enacted more favorable policies towards LGBT communities, to date, only 34 countries have legalized LGBT marriages, the first being the Netherlands in 2001. In Asia, only Taiwan has legalized same-sex marriage. In South Korea, rights for this community have lagged behind, in large part due to a broadly unsupportive public.

South Korea does not criminalize same-sex behavior, but only declassified such behavior as “harmful and obscene” in 2003, and still does not employ non-discrimination policies in the workplace, offer protection against hate crimes, or allow same-sex couples to adopt.

In February 2023, the Seoul high court in South Korea ruled that the national health insurance service must provide spousal coverage to same-sex couples, marking a small victory as a legal battle, but no legislation followed. 

There have been bills proposed in the National Assembly that would “prevent discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people” as early as 2007. According to a recent Gallup survey, these anti-discrimination laws have a slight majority with 56% of the public in favor; however, such legislation has always been blocked. Likewise, this year the Justice Party (JP) proposed the country’s first bill that would legalized same-sex marriage, but found little support.

Major conservative lobbies have been crucial in not only blocking anti-discrimination laws from going through, but also using their influence to persuade other Christians in South Korea that LGBT+ rights are a moral issue to oppose. In 2015, such organizations successfully blocked an LGBT pride march in Seoul and this year Seoul replaced the country’s Queer Culture Festival with a Christian concert.

Even prominent progressive political figures like the previous President, Moon Jae-In, received attacks from extreme conservative fringe groups. The influence of religious opposition to LGBT issues has clear electoral ramifications, with candidates across the political spectrum frequently quick to state their own opposition.

To gauge support for same-sex marriage, a national web survey was conducted from September 2 to October 11, targeting a diverse group of 1,300 South Korean participants using quota sampling techniques for gender, age, and region, with administration by the survey company, Macromill Embrain. We asked respondents to evaluate the following statement on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree): “Same-sex marriage should be legal in Korea.” For simplicity, we reduced this to a three-point scale below. The results were striking: overall, we find broad opposition with 48.77% strongly or somewhat disagreeing with legalization, compared to only 23.77% supportive. 

As anticipated, the data revealed distinct differences based on political affiliation. Supporters of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) were predominantly against legalization, with a staggering 68.01% opposing it. Surprisingly, even within the liberal Democratic Party (DP), a plurality of 43.26% were against legalizing same-sex marriage. Furthermore, when the results were segmented by age cohorts, a clear trend emerged.

As seen elsewhere, age generally positively corresponds to opposition to legalization. Among the 18-29 age group, support for legalization remained comparatively high at 41.05%, but this support gradually declined with older age cohorts, dropping to a mere 14.77% among those aged 60 and over. These findings highlight the complexity of public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage in South Korea.

Since organized conservative Christian organizations, such as Christian Reformed Churches, traditionally have been seen as the main opposition to LGBT rights, we also divided responses by religious identity. We find Protestants the most opposed (69.10%) compared to Catholics (48.44%) and Buddhists (49.73%), consistent with previous work.

In an environment of general hostility, many South Korean LGBT people may not be open about their status and as such, contributes to a broader invisibility of the population. Conversely, contact theory generally expects contact with minority populations to increase tolerance. We asked “Do you personally know any Korean person who is LGBT?”. Here only 7.92% stated they knew an LGBT Korean, with 80.08% responded in the negative and 12% unsure or did not know. Among those 18-29, 24.02% of respondents stated they knew a Korean LGBT person, declining to 5% for age cohorts 40 and over. Of those who knew an LGBT Korean, a majority supported legalization (55.34%) compared to a plurality among those unsure (42.95%) and those who knew none (17.77%).

Although the widespread opposition to LGBT rights remains a considerable hurdle, generational shifts favor LGBT tolerance and trends show evidence that South Korean LGBT acceptance has increased in some areas. While South Korea is unlikely to legalize same-sex marriage in the short-term, proponents may wish to take lessons from Taiwan, who ultimately amended their relevant marriage laws in 2017. Rather than start with national efforts, local efforts at non-discrimination, often focusing on specific factors such as housing, could be seen as building momentum for broader legal challenges. Japan too passed legislation in June 2023 to “promote understanding” and avoid “unfair discrimination”, and although seen as watered down by critics, may lead to incremental expansion of rights, a direction which South Korean proponents may wish to consider.

Timothy S. Rich is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, emphasizing Taiwan and South Korea. 

Katrina Fjeld is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Arabic and International Affairs.

Reagan Fournier is an undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs.

Josie Coyle a recent alumna from Western Kentucky University, where she majored in International Affairs and Chinese.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) as well as the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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