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South Korea

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the National Human Rights Commission to review cases of such discrimination, although its recommended relief measures are nonbinding. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. The Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause criminalizes consensual sexual acts between men in the military with up to two years’ imprisonment, regardless of consent and whether the act took place on a military installation. At the end of June NGOs reported there were two indictments and one open investigation under this law. The two individuals whose cases went to trial received suspended sentences.

Despite the NHRCK’s repeated calls for the National Assembly to adopt a comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would penalize with imprisonment or fines discriminatory practices based on gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation, among others, the National Assembly failed to pass it (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). Politically powerful conservative Christian groups that reject LGBTQI+ rights vehemently opposed such a law.

In September Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ youth in schools. The report, based on 67 interviews with students and teachers, revealed widespread bullying, violence, and harassment against LGBTQI+ students. These students were isolated due to their inability to rely on teachers or mental health professionals for help and support because they risked being outed. Transgender students faced additional stresses when their gender identity was not recognized, as schools set rules for uniforms, restroom or changing facility use, and classrooms based on gender.

NGOs noted the legal prohibition of sexual activity between men in the military led to abuse of LGBTQI+ soldiers. Given that all young men complete mandatory military service, NGOs argued the existence of the law provided justification for violence against LGBTQI+ individuals within the military and in broader society. In March Byun Hui-su died by suicide. She was expelled from the army after having gender-affirming surgery in 2020. Byun wished to continue serving in the military as a woman, but the military classified her as having a “class three mental and physical disability.” The NHRCK determined that the army should reverse the decision, noting that being transgender was not a disability. In October the Daejeon District Court ordered a posthumous cancellation of Byun’s discharge from the military, saying the military’s decision was unfair. While the Ministry of National Defense requested the government appeal the Daejeon court decision, the Ministry of Justice declined to do so, citing “consideration of facts, legal principles, respect for human dignity, and public sentiment.”

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future