South Korea's Slow Shift toward LGBT Tolerance

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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South Korean laws and attitudes towards LGBT rights are particularly conservative, but polls suggest attitudes are shifting.

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Whereas Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights have expanded over the past 20 years in western democracies, and in many cases now include the right to same-sex marriage, South Korea lags behind.

To put this in perspective, The Guardian in 2014 reported on five LGBT laws around the world – consensual sex, workplace non-discrimination, marriage, adoption and protection against hate crimes – and found that South Korea only allowed consensual sex. Meanwhile, over four-fifths of European countries and a roughly a third of countries in the Americas had at least two of these laws. South Korea has no explicit law penalizing homosexuality in general, though the military still bans consensual sex. South Korea also maintains an increasingly visible LGBT community and yearly Pride festival and in August of 2017, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered government agencies to allow an LGBT rights organization to register as a charity.

Yet broader support for LGBT rights is less apparent. No political party in South Korea has endorsed the promotion of LGBT rights and despite a growing global trend of legalizing same-sex marriage, public support remains low and anti-LGBT rallies consistently outnumber their pro-LGBT counterparts.

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AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
An anti-homosexuality protester, left, is taken away by police officers from a road during a parade as part of the Korea Queer Culture Festival in Seoul in 2016.

In 2014, Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon, the most prominent politician to seemingly endorse legalization and proponent of a city human rights charter including a sexual orientation non-discrimination clause, backtracked due to conservative backlash, both canceling the charter and stating that he did not support homosexuality. Then presidential candidate Moon Jae-In in 2017 also stated he opposed homosexuality, though he later softened his tone.

Legislative attempts to extend anti-discrimination laws to the LGBT community also failed to pass in 2007, 2010, and 2013. Despite the lack of national discrimination legislation, 12 local governments have included sexual orientation in local anti-discrimination ordinances, though anti-LGBT activists called for their repeal.

This approach mirrors that of local governments passing LGBT rights ordinances or allowing same-sex couples to register their households in Japan and Taiwan despite no similar protection at the national level.

Cultural differences?

Opponents of expanding LGBT rights in South Korea invoke a common claim that cultural differences explain this divergence, yet identifying explicit distinctions is less clear. Religion, for example, frequently is used as a proxy for measuring culture. However, Buddhism does not contain doctrinal opposition to LGBT issues compared with Christianity, and even majority Catholic countries (e.g. Argentina, Ireland, and Spain) have extended LGBT rights to include marriage. Research based on the Korean General Social Survey (KGSS) finds notable variation in acceptance of same sex sexual relations and gay and lesbian parenting among Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants, the latter the least supportive and consistent with more recent Protestant-led protests.

More broadly, as a social construct, culture is open to change, although such change is often slow and generational. For example, most regions have seen a gradual increase in tolerance for the LGBT community, a common precursor for rights including same-sex marriage. World Values Survey show a cross-national decline, including East Asia, on viewing homosexuality as never justifiable. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that in 2014, 57 percent of Koreans surveyed stated homosexuality to be unacceptable compared to 18 percent stating it was acceptable. However, surveys through The Asan Institute for Policy Studies indicate a slow increase in the percentage of respondents claiming to have no reservations about homosexuality, 23.7 percent in 2014 compared to 15.8 percent in 2010.

Changing perceptions extend to support for same-sex marriage as well: the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found support for same-sex marriage increased from 16.9 percent in 2010 to 28.5 percent in 2014, with over 60 percent among Koreans in their 20s.

Furthermore, our experimental web survey research in 2017 suggests that how LGBT rights are presented in South Korea affect perceptions, similar to previous research on Taiwan. We found that while Koreans surveyed generally opposed legalization of same-sex marriage, support increased by 15 percent when respondents were also told the number of other countries that had already legalized same-sex marriage and that Korea would be the first in Asia to legalize, notwithstanding Taiwan's subsequent move to legalize last May. These findings endure after controlling for basic demographic factors, religious identification, political ideology and partisanship.

South Korea may be slow to enact LGBT rights as seen in many Western democracies but evidence suggests a gradual shift in public perceptions, a glimmer of hope that continued shifts may eventually push elected officials towards more tolerant policies towards the LGBT community.

Read next: Taiwanese Couples' Agonizing Wait for Same-sex Marriage

Editor: Morley J Weston

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