Joint Letter to South Korea’s National Assembly Calling For the Immediate Passage of a Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law
This letter was signed by 30 organizations and sent to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. It urges the National Assembly to pass an antidiscrimination law to address pervasive discrimination against marginalized groups in the country.
Dear members of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee and other members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea:
On behalf of the 30 signatory organizations to this letter, we are writing to urge you to immediately pass a comprehensive antidiscrimination law in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), which would meaningfully address pervasive discrimination against marginalized groups in the country.
Over the past 15 years, United Nations mechanisms have repeatedly expressed concern about discrimination in South Korea. The UN Human Rights Committee, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and Committee on the Rights of the Child have all specifically urged the government to adopt comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation. States have also urged South Korea to adopt comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation throughout the three cycles of its Universal Periodic Review, which South Korea accepted several times in 2008, 2013, and 2018.
While patchwork protections exist for some marginalized groups, a comprehensive bill would make them more cohesive and effective, and would cover other groups as well. Recent proposals would prohibit discrimination based on “gender, disability, medical history, age, origin, ethnicity, race, skin color, physical condition, marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” Explicit protections are urgently needed, as existing frameworks are failing to prevent discrimination and provide redress.
South Korea lags globally in protecting the rights of women and girls. Traditional patriarchal values remain deeply embedded in society and help drive deep gender inequity. In the 2021 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap ranking, South Korea ranked 102 out of 156 countries, with an especially large gender gap on economic participation and opportunity, where it ranked 123. The country ranked 134—among the worst in the world—on the percentage of legislators, senior officials, and managers who are women, with 16 percent of these roles filled by women. Less than 3 percent of board members at South Korea’s top 200 listed companies and less than 4 percent of top executives are women. South Korean women do more than four times as much unpaid work as men and face a 33 percent gender pay gap. Gender-based violence is unfortunately- widespread, as well as digital sex crimes. In 2019, the Korea Women’s Hotline estimated that a woman was murdered every 1.8 days. In a 2017 survey of 2,000 South Korean men by the Korean Institute of Criminology, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported they had committed violence against an intimate partner.
Discrimination against older people in South Korea is pervasive. Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that over 40 percent of older people in South Korea live in relative poverty, the highest rate among OECD countries. In a 2018 survey of 1000 older people by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 59 percent of respondents said they had difficulty finding jobs because of age restrictions, while 44 percent said they had experienced ageism in their workplaces. A 2020 report by the Korea Elder Protection Agency of the Ministry of Health and Welfare said the cases of abuse against older people increased from 2,674 in 2009 to 6,259 in 2020.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is widespread. Children with disabilities, for example, can face significant difficulties obtaining an education.
Discrimination based on race, origin, and ethnicity has also been a pervasive concern in South Korea. A 2020 survey from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that nearly 70 percent of foreign residents had experienced racial discrimination, with nearly 40 percent facing workplace discrimination and nearly 30 percent being refused a job. North Koreans living in South Korea also face discrimination in accessing education, accommodation, and employment opportunities.
Discrimination based on origin is also evident in the education law itself. All Korean citizen children have a right to nine years of compulsory education, consisting of six years of elementary education and three of secondary education. Although migrant children may have the right to attend school, they do not benefit from compulsory education. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, however, all children, regardless of national origin, have a right to free and compulsory primary education, and access to all other education, including further compulsory education, on a non-discriminatory basis.
South Korea has not adopted protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, leaving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people at particular risk. LGBT people are highly vulnerable to being fired, evicted, or subjected to other forms of harassment. LGBT children experience severe isolation and mistreatment in schools. In recent years, LGBT parades and festivals have been targeted with intimidation and violence, and anti-LGBT sentiment surged last year in the wake of a Covid-19 outbreak.
Lawmakers in South Korea have introduced comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation 11 times since 2007, but these bills have not been a priority for lawmakers despite wide support by majority of South Koreans. In 2020, 89 percent of those surveyed by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea supported the enactment of an antidiscrimination law. In 2021, 100,000 citizens petitioned the National Assembly to enact an antidiscrimination law, and the Legislation and Judiciary Committee was obligated to review that petition by November 10, 2021. However, on November 10, the Legislation and Judiciary Committee announced it extended the review period until the end of the parliamentary sitting on May 29, 2024.
On November 25, President Moon Jae-in called for South Korea to align its standards to international law and protect human rights of all marginalized groups. We are aware the regular legislative session of the National Assembly ended on December 10, but the National Assembly will hold an extra temporary session from December 13, 2021, to January 10, 2022. You have a crucial opportunity to support President Moon’s call, and respond to recommendations from within South Korea and from the international community to pass a law that would preemptively protect all marginalized minorities from discrimination as well as create systems to protect them if victimized.
We strongly urge you to pass comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation within this legislative session to support these long-overdue protections to safeguard the rights of all South Koreans and bring South Korea in line with its human rights obligations.
- Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
- African Observatory for Public Freedoms and Fundamental Rights
- Amnesty International Korea
- Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice
- European Network Against Racism
- FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights.
- Forum Asia
- Hall & Prior Health and Aged Care Group
- Han Voice
- HelpAge International
- Human Rights Watch
- Human Rights Without Frontiers
- ILGA Asia
- Imagine Africa Institute
- International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
- International Federation on Ageing
- International Longevity Centre Canada
- International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism
- International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
- Minority Rights Group International
- Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights
- Open North Korea
- Organization for Identity and Cultural Development
- Oyu Tolgoi Watch
- Rivers without Boundaries Coalition
- Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes
- Transitional Justice Working Group
- Unification Academy
Photo: National Assembly Building of the Republic of Korea, Seoul, South Kora, 8 September 2014. Published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license by clumsyforeigner.