South Korea 2022
South Korea presented no credible plan to phase out the use of coal by 2030 and reliance on fossil fuels continued. Small positive steps to protect LGBTI rights were progressed by the judiciary. Online violence against women and girls remained pervasive, but the new government reduced resources to respond to the issue. Media freedom was threatened.
Women’s rights regressed following Yoon Suk-yeol’s election as president. The Ministry of Education announced a plan to remove content related to sexual orientation and gender identity from school curricula. Following the deaths of more than 150 people in a crowd crush during Halloween celebrations in Itaewon, concerns were raised about the effectiveness of disaster response and crowd control.
Failure to tackle climate crisis
The government’s plan to phase out coal remained ambiguous. In August, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy announced its latest electricity plan, which still envisaged drawing more than 20% of electricity from coal in 2030. To be compatible with the 1.5°C goal set at COP27, coal must be phased out entirely by 2030. The state power utility, KEPCO, increased coal power in 2022 in response to higher gas prices. In June, a petition was filed with the Constitutional Court by 62 children aged 10 and under to contest the constitutionality of the government’s Carbon Neutrality Act, which fell well short of necessary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Rights of people with disabilities
Disability rights groups carried out a series of demonstrations on the subway from December 2021 to demand a disability-inclusive budget and promote mobility rights. The Minister of Economy and Finance ignored the demands of the campaign groups, stating that a budget for people with disabilities was incompatible with the purpose of the supplementary budget. The public transport system was still not fully wheelchair accessible 20 years after the publication of the first plan to guarantee mobility rights for people with disabilities.
Two activists from the South Korean Coalition for Anti-discrimination Legislation participated in a 46-day hunger strike calling for enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. Despite four proposed bills being added to the agenda at a Legislation and Judiciary Committee meeting in May, there was no traction on passing any legislation.
LGBTI people’s rights
On 7 January the Seoul Administrative Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by So Seong-wook and his partner Kim Yong-min against the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) for denying insurance coverage by not recognizing partners within a same-sex relationship as dependents. The NHIS first recognized Kim Yong-min as So Seong-wook’s dependent in 2021, but cancelled this status eight months later. They have appealed the ruling.
In April, for the first time, the Supreme Court of Korea reversed lower court convictions of two soldiers under Article 92-6 of the country’s Military Criminal Act, reversing its own precedent. The Court reasoned that if same-sex sexual acts took place off base, while the soldiers were off duty and by mutual consent, the Act does not apply.1
In November, the Supreme Court decided that having children of minor age should not immediately be a reason to refuse to recognize the legal gender of transgender people. In coming to this decision – and partially overturning its previous decision from 2011 – the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of transgender individuals to dignity, happiness and family life.2
Freedom of expression, association and assembly
On 22 August the criminal trial of a Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector objecting to the punitive nature of “alternative service” began. Hye-min Kim, whose religious beliefs preclude him from doing military service, is the first person known to have refused “alternative service” since it was introduced in 2020.3
On 15 September, the Constitutional Court held a public hearing on the constitutionality of Articles 2 and 7 of the National Security Act related to a case involving 11 petitions filed by individuals and lower courts, some of which have been pending since 2017. According to the petitioners, the lack of a clear definition of “anti-government organization” under the Act inhibits the work of civil society and provides up to seven years’ imprisonment for those who “praise, incite or propagate the activities of an anti-government organization”.
In September, the ruling People’s Power Party filed a complaint against public broadcaster Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation on charges of violating the Promotion of Information and Communication Network Use and Information Protection (Defamation) Act. The media outlet was accused of misreporting President Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks during a trip to New York, USA. The Seoul metropolitan police launched an investigation.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
Violations of the rights of foreign nationals continued at detention centres. Officials at the Hwaseong detention centre allegedly tied Moroccan detainee inmate A’s arms and legs behind his back in the so-called “hog-tying position”. In February, the Ministry of Justice issued a temporary release from detention for inmate A, an undocumented migrant, following acknowledgement by the Ministry of Justice and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea that human rights violations had occurred when he suffered torture or other ill-treatment at a detention centre in June 2021. In May, however, the Ministry of Justice announced a revision to the Immigration Control Act to introduce equipment and chairs that can bind upper and lower body limbs simultaneously.
Women’s and girls’ rights
The Expert Committee of the Digital Sex Crimes Task Force, established by the Ministry of Justice in the wake of the “Nth Room” incident, a sexual blackmail ring that operated on the application Telegram and targeted dozens of women, was officially disbanded on 15 June, with two months remaining in its mandate, after 17 members of the task force resigned. They were under pressure from the newly inaugurated president’s administration, which stated that the task force had already fulfilled its intended purpose, despite widespread concerns about continuing online gender-based violence.4
Media reported on a new case involving the online exploitation of minors by a suspect known as “L” who had forced survivors to produce exploitative material and was arrested by police in Australia on 23 November. It revealed that the alleged perpetrator had increased the production and distribution of exploitative material. The case highlighted ongoing concerns about the extent of digital sex crimes in South Korea and also exposed fundamental problems such as a lack of dedicated personnel and budget for police investigations into gender-based violence.5
The new government announced plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family as part of a reorganization plan. The Ministry had served as a control tower for all ministries of gender equality policies, but the reorganization would place its functions under the Ministry of Employment and Labour and the Ministry of Health and Welfare. More than 800 organizations expressed opposition to the plan.
In July, the Constitutional Court held a public hearing on a challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty that has been pending since 2019. South Korea is abolitionist in practice and the last execution was carried out in 1997.
- “South Korea: Landmark judgment on same-sex sexual acts in military a huge victory for LGBTI rights”, 21 April
- “South Korea: Supreme Court ruling on legal gender recognition an important step forward for transgender rights”, 24 November
- “South Korea: Drop charges against first conscientious objector to refuse alternative service”, 22 August
- “Yoon Suk-yeol needs to change the way South Korea treats women”, 10 May
- “South Korea: Online sexual abuse content proliferates as survivors blame Google failings”, 8 December