The South Korean government considers people living with HIV morally unfit to teach English and medically unfit to receive government scholarships to study at South Korean universities. But the UN and governments around the world have long recognized that such policies are unjustified on any sort of health or human rights grounds. In such an economically and scientifically advanced country, this is an astonishing reminder that in some respects South Korea still needs to catch up with the rest of the world.
Today, foreign English teachers in South Korea must pass periodic HIV tests to keep their positions, and foreign graduate students may be disqualified from exchange programs and have government scholarships revoked if they are found to be HIV-positive. International human rights condemnation has not altered these facts.
In 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination decided that South Korea’s HIV testing requirements for foreign English teachers could not be justified on public health grounds and qualified as racial discrimination as most ethnic South Koreans were not subjected to the same requirement. In late 2016, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea issued two decisions recommending an end to HIV restrictions on foreign English teachers and government-invited foreign graduate school scholarship recipients.
Former President Park Geun-hye and her government ignored all three determinations. However, the May 9 election for a new President offers an opportunity for a new president and government to revisit this issue.
Sadly, shortcomings in public education on HIV/AIDS remain a problem. As a result, many South Koreans believe HIV to be far more infectious and transmissible than it really is and see a health threat that in practice does not exist. Contrary to the views of far too many in South Korea, HIV cannot be spread through casual contact and modern medications can reduce the likelihood of transmission nearly to zero. Indeed, local health activists report that there are no known cases in South Korea of a foreign teacher infecting a student with HIV.
As the Human Rights Commission recognized in its decisions, imposing HIV travel restrictions does not yield any public health benefit to South Koreans. Advances in HIV treatment have vastly improved both quality of life and survival for people living with the disease, to the point that it can now be successfully managed with a daily pill. A recent study found that some people living with HIV in the United States “now have life expectancies equal to or even higher than the U.S. general population.”
Work and study restrictions on foreigners living with HIV may, in fact, have negative public health repercussions. By explicitly linking HIV to foreigners, these restrictions play a role in frustrating domestic prevention measures by suggesting that HIV is simply a foreign problem that can be addressed through border control.
By strengthening the stigma against HIV, the government’s restrictions can also discourage HIV-positive South Koreans from seeking treatment and contribute to fear of prejudice that causes many people to choose not to get tested for HIV — which increases the disease’s potential for harm. The stigma in South Korea is so pervasive that people living with HIV are reportedly 10 times more likely to commit suicide than South Koreans without HIV.
The World Health Organization announced that there was no justification for HIV-based travel restrictions in 1987, and in 2006 the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS stated that the practice is “discriminatory and cannot be justified by public health concerns.” In 2012, UNAIDS and the Global Business Coalition on Health presented a pledge by the CEOs of 24 multinational companies opposing HIV travel restrictions.
Fewer and fewer countries maintain travel restrictions on people living with HIV. The U.S. did away with its travel ban in 2010, the same year the South Korean government itself recognized restrictions as a form of discrimination. South Korea went on to claim at the 2012 International AIDS Conference that it had rescinded all HIV-related travel restrictions on foreigners — even as it continued to require foreigners seeking work visas to undergo health checks that included HIV testing.
Put simply, the South Korean government’s view and treatment of people living with HIV is outdated and contrary to internationally recognized best practices, and needs to change now. Preventing people living with HIV from studying or teaching in South Korea may fuel xenophobia, does not protect South Koreans from HIV, isolates and marginalizes people living with HIV, and perpetuates dangerous popular misconceptions about the realities of the condition. South Korean officials should instead recognize that HIV is a global health problem to be addressed through treatment, prevention and education.
South Korea prides itself on its technological leadership, and the issues in this presidential election center on modernizing political and business relationships. Instead of banning and shaming people living with HIV, South Korea should promote public education about HIV transmission and treatment, improve access to HIV treatment, and combat the damaging myth that a HIV diagnosis represents a moral failure. And it should stop requiring HIV testing for foreign students and teachers.