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South Korean Court Declines to Recognize Same-Sex Partners

Ruling Highlights Need for Legislative Protections

Participants march with a rainbow flag during a Pride parade in Seoul, South Korea, July 15, 2017.    © 2017 AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon.

A court in Seoul, South Korea has rejected a same-sex couple’s bid for spousal health insurance benefits, underscoring the lack of legal protections for same-sex couples in the country.

Although South Korea does not recognize same-sex partnerships, one of the men successfully registered the other as his spouse in February 2020, allowing him access to his employer’s health insurance plan. When the story became public months later, the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) swiftly reversed course and revoked his partner’s dependent status. The couple sued to have the benefits restored.

In its ruling last week, the court declined to recognize the couple as common law spouses, citing the lack of legislative recognition of same-sex partnerships in South Korea.

The lack of protection for same-sex couples can have serious consequences in a country where discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in employment, housing, and other domains is widespread.

While opinion polls consistently show strong public support for comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation, South Korea’s National Assembly has delayed action on legislative protections as lawmakers continue to seek a consensus with opponents of LGBT rights. But that is unlikely to materialize. The failure to protect LGBT people from discrimination leaves LGBT South Koreans highly vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse.

As South Korean lawmakers delay, other jurisdictions in the region are recognizing the need for protections and taking action. In 2019, Taiwan recognized marriage equality for same-sex couples, marking a historic first in the region. Courts in Hong Kong have extended spousal benefits in the absence of formal partnership recognition. Most recently, the Tokyo metropolitan government announced it would move ahead with a system to recognize same-sex partnerships.

This week’s ruling highlights that LGBT South Koreans are being denied many of the same opportunities as others. Lawmakers need to show real leadership and ensure that the rights of all LGBT people, single or partnered, are recognized and protected.

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