What you need to know
South Korea is unlikely to be the next in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Taiwan’s recent same-sex marriage legalization may indicate a global trend towards greater LGBT tolerance, especially among developed democracies. South Korea, however, remains an outlier in this trend in spite of its vibrant democracy.
Pro-LGBT organizations in South Korea were unable to register as charities as of 2015. The South Korean Court has only granted LGBT groups the right to register as tax-deductible charities two years ago, which finally allowed them to receive donations to carry out LGBT projects.
No major political party has openly supported LGBT rights. Left-leaning politicians, including Seoul mayor Park Won-Soon and President Moon Jae-In had even backtracked their previous statements that were perceived as supporting the LGBT community.
A few public opinion surveys differ from the government’s attitude. For example, over six waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), the percentage of respondents from South Korea claiming homosexuality to be never justifiable has declined by half since 1990, from 89.3 percent down to 42.2 percent in 2010.
However, a majority of Koreans still remain intolerant to the LGBT community on most recent surveys. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of surveyed Koreans agreed that homosexuality was morally unacceptable. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of the country consistently opposed same-sex marriage legalization over the past few years.
The typical explanations for South Korean opposition to LGBT issues focus on culture and religion.
Confucian cultural influences, often vaguely defined as respect for the traditional family structure and social roles, are presented as deterministic while ignoring that places like Taiwan with similar cultural roots appear more hospitable.
Christianity’s popularity in South Korea, both in the number of adherents and political organizations, would seem a challenge to LGBT acceptance as well, especially due to the general perception of the religion’s doctrinal opposition to homosexuality. Yet, very few studies disaggregate Christian denominations or compare their views to others. My own analysis of survey research in South Korea finds Korean Protestants to be less supportive, while there was no substantive difference in views among Catholics, Buddhists, and the non-religious.
Explicit cultural and religious influences at best provide an incomplete view to the country’s LGBT opposition, but their indirect effects may offer greater insight. For instance, few Koreans acknowledge personally knowing a Korean LGBT person, which might be a cause for discrimination. Intergroup contact theory suggests that a majority group’s interactions with a minority group often lead to greater tolerance of that minority group over time. Research shows South Koreans who state they know a Korean LGBT person are more supportive of same-sex marriage and other legal rights. However, most media portrayals of LGBT people in South Korea remain negative and many LGBT Koreans are not out to their families, which reinforce the social distance that fuels opposition.
The lack of social proximity, combined with a limited legal framework that has only been recently improved, has provided anti-LGBT groups a considerable advantage in shaping public and government opinion.
Despite hopes that countries in Asia would soon follow Taiwan in legalizing same-sex marriage, South Korea is unlikely to be the next one. It has, however, started laying the foundation for broader tolerance and legal rights. Anti-discrimination laws have been passed in 15 local governments so far. And over 90 percent of South Koreans believe that LGBT people should have the equal employment opportunities according to a 2017 Gallup Korea survey.
Likewise, efforts to uplift non-stereotypical LGBT characters on television and cinema as well as continuous protests against LGBT discrimination may chip away at some opposition.
As LGBT organizations navigate the new legal environment and learn from success stories elsewhere in Asia and beyond, these smaller efforts will provide avenues to challenge what cultural and religious barriers once thought to be impenetrable.
Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on the domestic and international politics of East Asia.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)