More Than ‘Another Kick At The Can’

Another attempt is being made to pass a law in South Korea which defines more specifically the parameters within which discrimination is unacceptable.

It was initially introduced by the Justice Party, a minority party in the National Assembly (NA), with sufficient support from other minority parties, as well as a few MNAs from the majority Democratic Party, to gain the numbers needed to officially introduce it in South Korea’s national parliament. The National Human Rights Council in Korea (NCHKR) is also on board with this effort, but they have asked that this prospective law be named ‘the Equality Bill’, to make it clear that his is an attempt to define and protect equality in South Korea[1].

The rub in this bill, as it has been in the previous times it has been proposed, is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender’ as categories of people for whom discrimination and harassment are outlawed. As before, the conservative Christian forces (CCFs) of Korea have spoken out against this, saying that this will impair the free exercise of religion and of the ability to express oneself in this nation.

What has been disappointing for many here is the silence of the President, Moon Jae-in, and the Democratic Party. During a presidential candidate debate in 2017, when directly questioned by a conservative candidate about homosexuality, Moon meekly said, ‘I oppose it.’[2] He has since tried to walk a fine line between his reputation as a human rights lawyer and a politician seeking to win over or keep ‘the Christian vote’ in South Korea, he has appealed to the need for ‘consensus’ on issues such as marriage equality, while also trying to stress to religious leaders the necessity of not tolerating discrimination in Korean society[3].

However, it appears as though the Democratic Party indicated, on July 8th, that they might introduce an anti-discrimination law in the National Assembly[4]. Therefore, we have a situation where the Presidential Office (Cheong Wa Dae, of ‘the Blue House’) has not taken an initiative on an issue, and rival proposals on it have been introduced in the country’s parliament, leading to a time of negotiation and, if necessary, horse-trading, until a version of a law sufficiently acceptable to all sides can be passed.

On first glance, one could look at this situation and say that the first stones have been paved on the path to deadlock and failure to pass an anti-discrimination law yet again.

And yet…

…it feels like this time, it is more than just ‘another kick at the can’. There are some significant differences. In the most recent National Assembly elections, the DP succeeded in gaining a clear majority of representatives, 180 seats out of 300. According to the Korean Constitution, this gives the DP the ability to introduce bills which do not require the consent of other parties. Moreover, the passage of the bills they introduce cannot be delayed through procedural strategies like filibustering.

In addition, there are additional MNAs from minority parties like the Justice Party, the Open Democratic Party, and the Basic Income Party, all of which have progressive policy platforms, and which have declared themselves in favor of enacting an anti-discrimination/equality law. The DP will be able to count on the support of these parties, even if there are individual MNAs within the DP who may try to resist a three-line whip,[5] should one be enforced.

The most significant difference this time, though, is that there appears to be a discernible shift in the mood of the Korean populace. A recent poll done by the Korean Women’s Development Institute in May has indicated that over 87% of those surveyed believe a comprehensive anti-discrimination law which includes gender and sexual orientation should be passed. This is a level of support higher than that found by the Institute for Religious Freedom in 2013 (59.8%) and by KBS in 2019 (64%)[6].

Thus, it appears as though the last remaining objection to passing a comprehensive law specifying gender and sexual orientation, the lack of social consensus, is crumbling. Now there has been some discussion in the Facebook groups I am part of as to whether trying to build social consensus is really a productive strategy. Some people I know have suggested that direct action, to the point of confronting political leaders, is the only strategy which will work. This is a strategy which has been employed in many struggles for civil rights and equality. We should perhaps remind ourselves of the words of Martin King: ‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.[7]’ There are those in this country who have done and do this demanding for justice regularly, even if it means being arrested for it[8].

At the same time, we also cannot deny the momentum which is created when groups representing the vast majority of society band together for change. Concerning the times when significant political change occurred in the Republic of Korea, ending the military government in 1987 and ending the presidency of Park Geun-hye in 2017, I think it is fair to ask, ‘Would change have come, or come as quickly, if there were not the level of mass demonstrations that there were?’ I believe that is a fair question.

Regardless, I believe it is clear that there has been majority support for a comprehensive anti-discrimination/equality law for a significant amount of time, and that this support is even more widespread now. The government of Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party have the social consensus and the parliamentary mandate they need. It is time to pull their collective finger out and bloody well pass the law!


[1] Jung, D M (2020, 3 July) Anti-discrimination law back on table at National Assembly. The Korea Times [online]. Retrieved 15 July 202 from https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/07/356_292216.html.

[2] Ock, H J (2017, 26 April) LGBT groups blast Moon for anti-homosexuality remarks. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieve 27 April 2017 from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170426001061.

[3] Shim, E (2019, Oct 21) Moon Jae-in: Anti-LGBT discrimination not acceptable in South Korea. UPI [online]. Retrieved 5 November 2019 from https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/10/21/Moon-Jae-in-Anti-LGBT-discrimination-not-acceptable-in-South-Korea/1041571673042/.

[4] Amnesty International (2020, 16 July). South Korea: New anti-discrimination bill offers hope and safety to many. Amnesty International [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/south-korea-new-anti-discrimination-bill-offers-hope-and-safety/

[5] The convention from parliamentary procedure that, if a government requires support on a given motion or law, it will underline the motion three times to indicate that party leaders, cabinet ministers/committee leaders, and backbench/rank-and-file representatives are required to be present and vote in favor, thereby ensuring the government continues to have the support of the assembly.

[6] 박소영 (Park, So Young) (2020, 15 June) 국민 10명 중 9명 차별금지법 제정에 찬성 (9 out of 10 citizens in favor of enactment of anti-discrimination law. Hankook Ilbo [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/202006151405386458.

[7] King, M L (1963, 16 April). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In Center for Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[8] Case in point, Ock (2017), in the article cited (see Footnote 2).

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