Activists want to break years-long legislative deadlock of anti-discrimination law
Korea is experiencing growing multiculturalism and multiracialism due to increased international exchanges. But the nation still faces challenges in fully embracing marginalized groups, leading to frequent reports of discrimination based on age, race, sex, disability, nationality, gender identity, and religion.
To advance as a society and sustain growth, Korea must prioritize the elimination of discrimination and actively embrace diversity and inclusiveness, which requires comprehensive legal and systemic reforms, coupled with a shift in public perception.
In 2024, The Korea Times will feature articles focusing on the theme of “Diversity, Inclusiveness, and Equality.” These pieces will delve into the current state of affairs in Korea concerning these issues and offer recommendations to help the country progress toward its goals. — ED
By Lee Hyo-jin
Jamal, a 37-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh, likes almost everything about Korea except for one thing: racism.
“Before arriving here, I heard that Koreans are kind. All Bangladeshis think that Korea is a developed country with friendly people. However, once they spend their first few days at a factory, they see the true face of Korea,” he said, speaking fluent Korean.
Over the past seven years, Jamal has worked in four different factories in Gyeonggi Province, helping produce fire hoses, farm equipment and furniture. Overcoming language and cultural differences was relatively easy, but grappling with racial discrimination has been, and continues to be, the hardest part.
“One of my bosses swore at us every day. He may have thought we don’t understand what he says, but we did. He called us ‘animals’ one time. He also spoke ill of my parents even though they had done nothing wrong. It was humiliating,” Jamal said.
“At lunch, he refused to eat together with Bangladeshis because he didn’t like our skin color.”
Public transit is another place where Jamal feels disconnected with Koreans.
“A lot of people don’t sit next to me on the subway or bus even if the seat is empty. But I’ve gotten pretty used to that.”
Kim Min-jeong (not her real name) is tired of living a double life.
Identifying as a bisexual, the 30-year-old has been in a relationship with her girlfriend for eight years – a fact she has kept hidden from her family and colleagues at work. Kim tells her parents that she is not interested in marriage. At work, she is a quiet employee who remains discreet, sometimes overly so, about her personal life.
“For me, the biggest challenge of being queer is that I can’t be my true self around everyone,” she told The Korea Times. “Sometimes it feels like I’m losing my real identity.”
Despite the struggle, she has no intention of disclosing her sexual orientation. In Korean culture, where family values and societal expectations hold significant weight, many sexual minorities hesitate to openly express their identity due to fears of rejection or isolation.
“Just because we’re unseen and unheard, it doesn’t mean that there’s no discrimination. In addition to social stigma and prejudice, we are not granted equal rights in government policies and the state welfare system,” Kim said.
“But the worst thing is an absence of any channel to speak up about this discrimination, with no legal protection,” she added.
These stories are emblematic of the challenges encountered by social minorities in Korea.
Despite being widely recognized as a democratic country that upholds most political, civil, and socio-economic rights, widespread discrimination against socially vulnerable groups such as the LGBTQ community, racial minorities, women and the disabled, continues in Korea.
Discrimination goes beyond exposure to hate speech or disapproval; it also permeates various facets of vulnerable people’s lives, affecting access to justice, housing, education, health, employment and the freedom to participate in political activities.
According to a 2022 social integration survey conducted by the Korea Institute of Public Administration, 56 percent of 8,300 respondents said they could not accept sexual minorities. Only 14 percent indicated that they feel comfortable having queer people as colleagues.
In a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2020, six out of 10 people with disabilities experienced discrimination and mobility challenges while using public transportation. While it takes an average of six minutes for non-disabled individuals to transfer lines in Seoul’s subways, the same process could take over 30 minutes for wheelchair users, a study showed.
Since December 2021, the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, a local advocacy organization for people with disabilities, has been organizing protests at Seoul’s subway stations during morning rush hours, demanding budget increases to improve mobility services for the disabled.
But their collective action has failed to stimulate change. Several activists now face lawsuits from the city government that accused them of hindering commuters during their protests.
Human rights activists emphasize the prevailing social inequality faced by minorities in Korea, highlighting the absence of legal protection. The nation lacks a comprehensive law that addresses all forms of discrimination, compounding the challenges faced by marginalized communities.
A new bill aims to prevent discrimination against groups or individuals based on sex, disability, age, race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and political opinions, among others.
Alongside Japan, Korea is the only country among OECD member nations without such a law.
Since 2007, anti-discrimination bills have been proposed 11 times at the National Assembly, including the latest one submitted in 2021. However, none have passed the final stage, mainly due to a strong backlash from conservative Protestant groups who oppose the legislation largely because homosexuality goes against their religious beliefs.
Over the past 15 years, only a handful of lawmakers in the 300-seat Assembly have openly supported the bills. Others remain quiet or publicly oppose them, wary of alienating Protestant voters.
“Ultra-conservative groups have been framing the anti-discrimination bill as a gay support measure, leading to misconceptions and distorting public perception of the law,” said Mong, co-executive chairperson of the South Korean Coalition for Anti-Discrimination Legislation, formed in 2017.
“The essence of the bill is to protect the human rights of every individual living in Korea,” she said.
Opponents argue that Korea does not need a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, as most forms of discrimination are already prohibited within the existing legal mechanism by separate laws such as the Gender Equality in Employment Act, the Act on Prohibition of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, and the Act on Prohibition of Age Discrimination in Employment.
“The Gender Equality in Employment Act, for instance, only protects those in the workforce. It fails to address gender discrimination against individuals – both women and men – who are unemployed. So this law often fails to address gender discrimination that occurs during the hiring stage,” she said.
In that regard, Mong views that the comprehensive anti-discrimination law, if enacted, would close loopholes in the existing legal framework that lacks guidance on what constitutes discrimination.
Anton Scholz, a German journalist and consultant who has lived in Korea over 20 years, says an anti-discrimination law would create more awareness about the prevailing discrimination. In Germany, the General Act on Equal Treatment was enacted in 2006 to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation.
“People were initially concerned that this new law might open the door to a flood of new legal cases and people would sue for all kinds of discrimination cases,” Scholz said. “But that actually did not happen.”
He added: “The passing of a law can create more awareness of the fact that there is still way too much discrimination going on and we need to counteract it. And in Korea, I think we surely need to be more aware of this issue.”
But as important as it is for Korea to introduce a legal mechanism banning discrimination, he also stressed the need for a change of mindset about minorities.
Scholz, who is currently a member of an advisory panel for immigration policies at the Ministry of Justice, commented that discrimination against migrants often stems from misconceptions about them.
“Immigration is a very sensitive issue in any country. And of course, a certain amount of friction between immigrants and the existing population happens often in other countries, too. That is why we rather need to educate people about the positive impact immigration can have on Korea,” he said.
“I think that many things in Korea cannot be fixed simply with new laws. We also have to educate people and make them behave correctly and not just pass laws on top of existing ones.”
Small steps forward
Although the anti-discrimination bill once again failed to become a law in 2023, there has been some progress.
In the 21st National Assembly formed in May 2020, four such bills were proposed. One was led by the minor progressive Justice Party, and the remaining three were led by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
“Although it has been slow, we have seen some improvements compared to the 20th Assembly,” Rep. Jang Hye-young of the Justice Party, who proposed one of the bills in June 2020, told The Korea Times.
“Following my proposal, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) made a similar suggestion, and a parliamentary petition supporting the passage of the bill garnered 100,000 endorsements. Also, an official public hearing (on the bill) was held by the Legislation and Judiciary Committee,” she said.
Jang viewed that the major obstacle preventing the bill from reaching the final stage is politicians succumbing to pressure from opposing groups that harbor hatred and prejudice against minorities.
“But I believe the growing public voices calling for change will eventually lead to the enactment of the anti-discrimination law,” the lawmaker said.
Mong echoed that sentiment.
“Following the proposal by Rep. Jang, the first such move in seven years, media coverage of the anti-discrimination bill between 2020 to 2022 reached the highest level since the agenda was first floated in the early 2000s,” the activist said.
“I would say this is a small improvement from the 20th Assembly when no such bills were submitted at all,” she added, expressing hopes for the bill to become a prominent campaign issue in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for April.