rainbow fans with Amnesty International logos and slogan held up in the air during 2022 Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF)

South Korea: Amnesty International makes submission to Supreme Court ahead of ruling on LGBTI rights

Amnesty International has submitted an amicus curiae brief to South Korea’s Supreme Court ahead of a key ruling on the rights of same-sex couples in the country.

The Supreme Court is due to rule on whether a same-sex partner is entitled to public health insurance coverage as his partner’s dependant, as is the case for heterosexual couples. The couple won a landmark case at the High Court in February 2023 which ruled that spousal coverage under the state health insurance scheme was not limited to legally defined families, and that denying the right to same-sex couples was discriminatory and violated the principle of equality.

The South Korea National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) appealed the High Court decision to the Supreme Court.

“To deny same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples is plainly discriminatory. South Korea must embrace equality, diversity and inclusiveness and ensure that every LGBTI individual can enjoy equal access to healthcare and social security benefits in the country,” Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Boram Jang said.

“Under international law and standards, South Korea is always required to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in access to healthcare and social security benefits.”

While 35 countries around the world have recognized same-sex marriage in law, South Korea has yet to legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Amnesty International’s amicus curiae brief highlights relevant international and regional law and standards for the Supreme Court’s consideration in determining whether rejecting dependant status to a partner in a same-sex relationship violates the rights to equality and non-discrimination.

“All authorities in South Korea are under an obligation to ensure and protect the rights enshrined by the international human rights conventions binding in the country. These obligations are binding on the state, including all branches of government – the executive, the legislative and the judiciary,” Boram Jang said.

“As international law and rulings from other jurisdictions have affirmed, any discrimination against individuals within society impacts us all.”

Background

Health care in South Korea is provided by the NHIS with generally every person living in the country being eligible for this public insurance scheme. Article 5(2)-1 of the National Health Insurance Act outlines that “spouses of the insured employee” are categorized as dependants of the insured. The definition of “spouse” is not specified in the Act though the term has encompassed de facto marriage relationships, in accordance with NHIS internal guidelines. The insured person’s spouse is exempt from health insurance contributions.

So Seong-wook and Kim Yong-min held a wedding to publicly declare their relationship in May 2019. In February 2020, So Seong-wook successfully registered as his same-sex partner Kim Yong-min’s dependant after having lived together as a married couple. After the couple’s story picked up media attention, the NHIS was quick to claim the registration as a ‘mistake’ and revoke So’s dependant status in October 2020. The NHIS subsequently asked So to pay back the spousal benefits during the period in which he had been considered a dependant.

So went on to initiate an administrative lawsuit against the NHIS regarding his status revocation. The Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favour of the NHIS on 7 January 2022 holding that same-sex unions are not the same as their heterosexual equivalent.

So appealed and on 21 February 2023 won in the High Court, overturning the ruling of the Seoul Administrative Court. The High Court deemed that denying spousal coverage to same-sex couples was discriminatory – a significant step towards achieving marriage equality in South Korea.

The NHIS has appealed this outcome to the Supreme Court following the reversal of the first decision.