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Marriage Equality Gets a Boost in South Korea

Proposed Law Would Protect Rights of Same-Sex Couples

Participants march during a Pride event in support of LGBT rights in Seoul, South Korea on June 1, 2019. © 2019 Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Image

Lawmakers in South Korea have introduced legislation that would extend the right to marry to same-sex couples. This important legislation would finally enshrine the rights of same-sex couples in the country.

The bill would amend the gendered definition of marriage in the country’s civil code, allowing same-sex couples to marry and extending them the same rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual married couples. Meanwhile, the National Assembly is also considering legislation that would create civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage for both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.

In the absence of partnership recognition, same-sex couples in South Korea are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and rights violations, including discrimination in taxation, inheritance, and family law.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s High Court ruled that denying health insurance benefits to same-sex couples that were provided to heterosexual couples constituted discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

South Korea also lacks general legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation is widely popular in South Korea, it has been stymied by legislative inaction and opposition from a small but vocal segment of the population.

The marriage equality bill comes as lawmakers in other countries in the region are considering more protections for same-sex couples. In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize marriage equality. Lawmakers in Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand are considering proposals to legally recognize marriages or civil unions for same-sex couples.

There is growing consensus among human rights bodies that states must offer some form of recognition for same-sex relationships to protect their rights. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that, “States have a positive obligation to provide legal recognition to couples, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, as well as to their children,” and to ensure that benefits traditionally offered to heterosexual married couples are extended without discrimination.

South Korea’s National Assembly should embrace this opportunity to protect the rights of same-sex couples and enact the marriage equality bill into law.

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