SEOUL -- South Korea's human rights watchdog on Tuesday recommended that the National Assembly enact the country's first comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.
The bill, if it gets the backing of President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party, would provide legal protection for all citizens, including LGBT people -- a marginalized group in a country where churches have a powerful influence on politics. But Moon and his left-leaning party have so far not commented on the law.
In its decision, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, pointed to the international human rights treaties to which South Korea is a party.
"Equality legislation already exists in most of the OECD member countries, except Korea and Japan, and as a member of the United National Human Rights Council, Korea must now respond to the requirements of the international community to establish equality laws," said NHRCK chairperson Choi Young-ae.
The commission's announcement comes a day after South Korea's progressive Justice Party proposed the bill.
"The anti-discrimination law is a proposal to lay the first clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all people are free, dignified, and equal from birth, as the basis of our society," Justice Party leader Sim Sang-jung said at a news conference about the bill she sponsored with nine other lawmakers. "It is the Justice Party's desperate pledge to reflect on our poor democracy, which has ruled out the voice of the socially weak, and move toward a community of solidarity and cooperation, based on the dignity of all individuals."
Sim's legislation is the seventh in a string of anti-discrimination bills proposed since 2007, the previous six of which were then cast aside amid opposition.
Notably, President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights attorney, has stayed silent on the proposed equality act. In 2012, Moon ran on the campaign of enacting an anti-discrimination law. Five years later, in 2017, he said he opposed discrimination, but also opposed homosexuality.
Both the presidential Blue House and the Democratic Party told the Nikkei Asian Review they did not have statements to make.
In South Korea, sexual minorities have long faced severe social stigma, sometimes even regarded as mentally unwell and morally corrupt. One national survey reported that nearly half of South Koreans don't want a gay friend, neighbor, or colleague. Another found that 45% of LGBT people under 18 have tried to commit suicide, while an NHRCK poll showed 92% of LGBT people worry about being the victim of hate crime.
LGBT discrimination became even more visible following a COVID-19 outbreak in a clubbing district in Seoul earlier this year. The media linked that outbreak to a gay club, sparking homophobic hysteria that made club-goers afraid to come forward and undergo testing, for fear of being outed, losing their jobs, and getting cut off by family.
"The coronavirus pandemic made us realize that each of us are connected to one another, and in order to guarantee the dignity and security of all of us, each of our different lives should be respected as is," said Sim. "Now it is the time to ... become a developed country for human rights. The anti-discrimination law will be the starting point for a human rights-advanced country."
To the surprise of many, the National Council of Churches in Korea expressed their support for the bill in a statement, comparing the anti-discrimination law to Christian law that "proclaims freedom and liberation" for everyone. "It is a practice that embodies the value of Christian love and equality in society," they said.
But their endorsement didn't stop a handful of conservative Protestants from gathering at the NHRCK in protest. Those protesters mischaracterize the bill as a form of reverse discrimination that, in protecting the rights of sexual minorities, denies them their own right to free speech.
"We need to continue speaking out, lining up, expressing ourselves," said Han Ye-jung, one teary-eyed protester at the NHRCK, who later added by email that she fears the equality act will "abolish the expression of the Christian doctrine to say that same-sex sexual acts are sins" that might lead to a "spread of AIDS."
Last year, conservative lawmakers submitted an amendment to remove "sexual orientation" from the NHRCK mandate that lists categories of discriminatory acts violating equal rights.
But with the National Council of Churches in Korea's support for the latest proposed equality act, LGBT rights groups hope this bill can enter uncharted territory and get signed into law.
"Our main hope is that politicians will do the right thing and support a non-discrimination bill," Ryan Thoreson, an LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Nikkei. "Conservative Protestants have... really given the government and lawmakers an excuse not to act on persistent complaints of discrimination in South Korea."
The United Nations has also backed the legislation.
"I encourage consideration and swift adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, building on the lessons learned from its response to the pandemic," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Tuesday.