South Korea

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women; rape not involving vaginal sexual intercourse is considered “imitative rape.” The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years’ to life imprisonment, while “imitative rape” carries a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Rape and “imitative rape” are defined in law as involving the use of violence. The legal definition of rape is based on whether the perpetrator used violence or intimidation and does not consider the victim’s consent. The Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. The law defines domestic violence as a serious crime and offenders may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison plus fines for domestic violence offenses. Due to the narrow legal definitions, the existence of laws criminalizing defamation, and prevalent discrimination toward women, rape and domestic violence continued to go underreported and underprosecuted. Civic groups criticized the perceived lenience of the judicial system toward offenders, with many receiving light or suspended sentences. Within this context, however, police generally responded promptly to reported incidents, and the judicial system effectively enforced the law.

Digital sex crimes were a significant concern; they constituted 23 percent of reported sexual violence in 2020. Digital sex crimes may involve perpetrators capturing hidden camera footage without the victim’s consent, nonconsensual sharing of images that had been captured with consent, or sharing images that have been faked or manipulated to damage the victim’s reputation. According to a June Human Rights Watch report, victims in digital sex crime cases were mostly female, and perpetrators were overwhelmingly male. Although digital sex crime cases that moved forward normally resulted in convictions (in 2020, only 12 of 1,849 cases resulted in acquittal), most defendants received only a suspended sentence or a fine. In June the Ministry of Justice appointed prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun to lead a task force of 10 legal, media, and information technology experts in updating existing criminal justice and human rights frameworks to combat digital sex crimes.

Several NGOs said the government had taken some positive steps to address digital sex crimes but emphasized the need to provide better support for victims. A Digital Sex Crime Victim Support Center, created in 2018, assists victims in requesting the deletion of images and videos from websites and supports victims in collecting evidence and filing police reports. It also makes referrals for free legal services and provides financial assistance for medical expenses. (For more on sex crimes facilitated by the internet, see “Sexual Exploitation of Children” below.)

Domestic violence remained a significant and underreported problem. According to official statistics, 222,046 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2020, a 7 percent decrease from 2019. Foreign brides of Korean men (often in rural areas) brought to the country by brokers since the early 1990s experienced domestic violence at a higher rate than the rest of the female population. These women, in recent years primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipina, were more vulnerable to human rights abuses due to language barriers and the lack of a support network in the country. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family continued to operate support centers and shelters to provide protection for foreign brides who were victims of sexual or domestic violence.

The Gender Equality Ministry operated the Special Center for Reporting Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. In 2020 sexual violence counseling centers provided 258,410 counseling services to victims. There were 104 centers supported by central and local governments, 34 sexual violence victim protection facilities, and 39 “sunflower centers” that provided counseling, medical care and therapy, caseworkers, and legal assistance. The volume of services provided represented a 6 percent decrease compared with 2019, which the centers attributed to a decrease in in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to NGOs, sunflower centers generally provided adequate support to victims of sexual assault.

Sexual Harassment: The law obligates companies and organizations to take preventive measures against sexual harassment. The government generally enforced the law effectively. The national police classify sexual harassment as “indecent acts by compulsion.” The NHRCK reported that victims of workplace sexual harassment who relied on in-house grievance mechanisms faced stigma and other difficulties, including, in some cases, losing their jobs. Victims who took their cases to court, as well as those who testified on behalf of victims at sexual harassment trials, were also subject to stigma.

Sexual harassment was a significant social problem, and there were numerous allegations of sexual harassment, including high-profile cases involving public officials, reported in media throughout the year. The National Assembly passed a law in March increasing penalties for stalking, which had previously been treated as a misdemeanor offense. Offenders now face up to three years in prison and a significant fine, and up to five years in prison if they use a weapon. While activists welcomed the increased penalties, they said the law does not address single-incident stalking – only stalking that occurs repeatedly.

In June a district court in Busan sentenced the city’s former mayor, Oh Geo-don, to three years in prison for sexually abusing two female subordinates during his tenure. Oh resigned in April 2020 after admitting to “unnecessary physical contact” with one of the two employees.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors, including emergency contraception as clinical management of rape.

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. Women, however, experienced societal abuses and employment discrimination (see section 7.d.).

As of May, approximately two million foreigners (including an estimated 390,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, whose otherwise ethnically homogeneous population totaled approximately 51.8 million. Racial and ethnic minorities faced societal discrimination. The NHRCK and NGOs continued to urge the National Assembly to pass a comprehensive antidiscrimination law, calling it “an urgent task that can no longer be delayed or ignored.”

According to a 2019 NHRCK survey, migrants reported discrimination by court workers, workplace supervisors, and immigration office personnel. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often victims of domestic violence. (See also section 6, Women).

In March the NHRCK ruled that mandatory COVID-19 testing orders specifically targeting foreign workers in several provinces and cities were discriminatory.

The Ministries of Gender Equality and Family and of Employment and Labor implemented programs to promote cultural diversity and assist foreign workers, spouses, and multicultural families to adjust to living in the country. There were also 228 multicultural centers nationwide that provided education to Koreans married to foreigners on human rights, gender equality, multicultural understanding, and various family life topics.

Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources, such as child-care support available to Korean children. Some children of non-Korean or multiple ethnicities were also bullied because of their physical appearance.

Birth Registration: Citizenship requires one parent be a citizen at the time of birth. Authorities also grant citizenship in circumstances where parentage is unclear or if the child would otherwise be stateless. The law requires that all children be registered in family registries, leaving approximately 20,000 children born to undocumented foreigners without access to certain public benefits and protections.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes serious injury and repeated abuse of children and provides prison terms of between five years and life. In March a provision of law interpreted as allowing parents to use corporal punishment in childrearing was repealed.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported 42,251 cases of child abuse in 2020. The ministry attributed increased reports in recent years to increased public awareness and expanded child welfare reporting requirements. The law provides for the protection, counseling, education, and psychological treatment of abused children.

In late December 2020 lawmakers passed measures to strengthen child abuse prevention and penalties for abusers, including immediate separation of the child from the abusers. This was in the wake of widespread outrage about the October 2020 death of a 16-month-old child who before dying had suffered months of physical abuse from her adopted parents. Media reported the cause of death as abdominal damage caused by external force, and police had not separated the child from her parents despite multiple reports of abuse from the child’s daycare center and others.

In a July report that analyzed reported cases of child abuse from 2020, the National Human Rights Commission called on the Ministry of Health and Welfare to publish detailed reports of child abuse cases, not just the numbers. It also recommended investigating all childhood deaths to identify cases in which abuse may not have been apparent. This was needed to educate the public on spotting warning signs and to bolster child abuse prevention, the commission said.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for men and women to marry is 18. There were no reported cases of forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 16, and it is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone younger than 19 into having sexual intercourse. The penalty for rape of a minor younger than age 13 ranges from 10 years to life in prison; the penalty for rape of a minor age 13 to 19 is five years’ to life imprisonment. Other penalties include electronic monitoring of offenders, public release of their personal information, and reversible hormone treatment.

The law prohibits the commercialization of child pornography. Offenders convicted of producing or possessing child sexual abuse materials for the purpose of selling, leasing, or distributing for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for distribution of child pornography for profit is five years’ imprisonment, distribution not for profit is three years’ imprisonment, and possession or purchase of child pornography is one year’s imprisonment.

In February a Seoul district court added five years to the prison sentence of Cho Ju-bin, the operator of the “Nth Room” chatrooms. Cho and other Nth Room administrators coerced women and minors into producing degrading and sometimes violent pornographic videos, and they sold access to the content via Telegram. In October the Supreme Court reduced Cho’s sentence from 45 to 42 years. In April another key member of the group received a 34-year prison sentence.

Children, especially runaway girls, were vulnerable to sex trafficking, including through online recruitment.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish community numbered approximately 1,000 individuals, almost all expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities and sets penalties for deliberate discrimination of up to three years in prison and a substantial fine. The government generally enforced this law. Persons with disabilities had some access to education, employment, social programs, and government support. Children with disabilities aged three to 17 had access to a separate special education school system, and all childcare and educational facilities had to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. Government statistics show persons with disabilities were employed at lower rates than those without disabilities and, when employed, were more likely to do irregular work. The government provided a pension system for registered adults and children with disabilities, an allowance for children younger than age 18 with disabilities in households with an income below or near the National Basic Livelihood Security Standard, and a disability allowance for low-income persons age 18 and older with mild disabilities.

The government generally implemented programs to facilitate access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. The enforcement regulations for building accessibility only apply to establishments larger than 300 square feet, and the Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea said this practice left persons with disabilities no access to some establishments used in everyday life. According to media reports, local agencies did not always provide accessible communications platforms for public health information during the COVID-19 pandemic or special accommodations for persons with disabilities during mandatory self-isolation periods. The closure of some care centers and schools during the pandemic also placed increased strain on family member caretakers of children with developmental disabilities.

The Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea reported that individuals with intellectual disabilities did not receive sufficient support to achieve self-reliance. In August the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced a pilot project to “de-institutionalize” persons with disabilities, provide them with the community support required to allow them to choose their own housing, and support their economic independence. After a two-year pilot stage, the project aims to move 24,000 citizens with disabilities out of care facilities by 2041. An NGO noted the long timeline and lack of community support would make this challenging and said the roadmap did not consider persons with disabilities who were homeless or institutionalized at mental-care facilities.

Persons with disabilities continued to face societal discrimination. NGOs said politicians also used discriminatory language to denounce their political rivals and their policies, which encouraged and perpetuated such discrimination.

The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV or AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. According to local NGOs, however, persons with HIV or AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma.

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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