Battle Over South Korea’s Constitutional Reform Focuses on LGBT Rights

On Sep. 2, 2017, there was a rally in downtown Gwangju the likes of which the city had never seen before. Streets were blocked off and a large stage was set up in the heart of the city.

With drummers, dancers, and singers, at a glance it didn’t look much different any other cultural festival. There were thousands of people in attendance from all walks of life, happily swaying in time with the music. But this isn’t what set it apart.

It wasn’t until a wizened man in plain attire took to the stage and began speaking that the message became clear: Homosexuality is a sin, and same sex marriage will become law in the land over their dead bodies. Gwangju, a city far from the country’s capital region, had never before hosted an anti-LGBT rally.

Gwangju’s pro-LGBT groups responded in November with their own rally, but it was hardly a match for the anti-LGBT rally two months earlier. At under 200, the turnout was small, and they were outnumbered by counter protesters and by police tasked with keeping the two groups apart.

Still it was a small victory of a sort. I spoke with a member of the organizing team. “This is the first time there’s ever been a pro-LGBT rally like this in Gwangju,” she said. “We didn’t think we’d be able to have it at all.”

The fight over the rights of sexual minorities isn’t new in South Korea, but in recent months it’s taken on a completely new dimension. For many years, major public events for or against LGBT rights were limited mainly to the Seoul and Daegu Queer Culture Festivals, held every year in Seoul since 2000, and in Daegu since 2009. Both events attract their shares of both supporters and detractors each year in gradually increasing numbers.

Gwangju’s anti-LGBT rally in September, though, was the first of its kind in the city, part of a movement that’s enveloped the country. From August through September, conservative groups organized large anti-LGBT rallies in Seoul, Daegu, Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon and Chuncheon — all mid-size to large cities strategically chosen to cover every region in the country aside from Jeju. For all but Seoul and Daegu, these rallies were the first of their kind. Prominent organizations representing various powerful conservative groups participated in the anti-rallies: the elderly, academics, Confucian academies, major center-right and right-wing political parties, sprinkles of Catholics and Buddhists (who didn’t necessarily represent the official stances of their traditions) and, of course, Protestants.

Protestant organizations wield significant influence in South Korea and are spearheading the anti-LGBT campaign. They are large, entrenched, and are no strangers to exercising political power. In Gwangju, the wizened old man leading the anti-LGBT rally was also a pastor at the city’s largest Protestant church. Churches like these have extensive organizational structures and use social media and messaging apps to call on their congregations to support a particular social cause, or attend a rally.

These church networks give the anti-LGBT coalitions strength in numbers, not to mention political capital and funding for propaganda videos. But with five rallies held in as many weeks, there’s a desperation in their actions. This fight has a deadline coming and they can’t afford to lose.


Constitutional Reform: A Gift from Park Geun-hye

At this time one year ago, rallies against (and some for) then-president Park Geun-hye blanketed the country. She was accused of letting her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, control state affairs behind the scene and take money from major corporations. Park was eventually stripped of her position by the constitutional court in March and a new election took place in May. South Koreans voted overwhelmingly for Moon Jae-in, a former opposition leader and Park’s main opponent in the 2012 presidential election.

Motivated by the extensive corruption during Park’s tenure, questions of what limits to place on the president’s power came to fore during this election. Such changes to the presidency can come only through constitutional reform. Moon expressed support for the idea during the campaign, and a special committee of lawmakers has been debating what changes exactly should be made since January 2017, shortly after Park’s impeachment trial began. Moon has declared that a draft constitution must be ready by June 2018.

The impetus may have been a desire to limit the president’s power, but any constitutional reform means many groups have an opportunity to check items off their wishlists. Human rights groups, for example, have long held hopes of passing a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, and LGBT groups want the country to legalize same-sex marriage.

For those opposed to homosexuality, any constitutional recognition of LGBT rights could only presage social acceptance of LGBT individuals, something they aren’t willing to sit by and watch.


The Battle Has Been Brewing

Ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation are surprisingly numerous at the municipal and provincial level. Fed up with a lack of progress at the national level, over 130 local governments across the country have passed their own human rights ordinances in the past two years. Of these, 12 specifically include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination clauses, even in South Gyeongsang Province, a bastion of conservatism.

Such ordinances speak to changing perceptions of homosexuality but have no binding legal effect, generally receiving little attention from the public at large. Seoul’s attempt to pass a human rights charter in 2014 was an exception to this trend of indifference. The proposed charter included a section on anti-discrimination, including protection over sexual orientation, which drew the ire of conservative groups.

Anti-LGBT rallies by Protestants are a fixture at the annual Queer Pride Parade in downtown Seoul, as at this one in 2016.

In a testament to their strength, immense pressure from conservative groups forced Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer, to cave, and the charter promptly died on the table. Seoul did end up passing a watered down human rights charter in 2016, but one that simply defers to national law on the matter of anti-discrimination, which doesn’t amount to much.

Not content with simply preventing new ordinances, conservative activists in South Chungcheong Province are now calling for the outright repeal of that province’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Passed in 2014, it included calls for specific protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. In April 2017 conservative groups launched a campaign to stop what they dubbed “human rights culture,” including thousand-strong rallies, a sit-in at the provincial government building, and a petition with 17,000 signatures.

Human rights groups are worried, and with good reason. A success in repealing South Chungcheong Province’s ordinance would be a major victory for anti-LGBT campaigners and could fuel momentum nationwide to quash other measures that extend LGBT protections. Sensing this, both prominent religious organizations and human rights groups, including the Christian Council of Korea (for repealing) and the NHRCK (against repealing) have issued lengthy public statements to add their weight to the fight.


Legal Indifference

The current battles are significant because domestic laws don’t mention homosexuality for the most part, putting sexual minorities in a legal grey area. Military law in South Korea prohibits sexual relations between active duty service members of the same sex. Aside from this, there are no laws that penalize homosexuality, but also none that provide legal protection or benefits — such as freedom from discrimination or the right to marry — either.

Anti-discrimination laws in South Korea are sparse. The current constitution, last revised in 1987, lists only sex, religion and what it calls “social status” as protected categories. Individual laws passed since have added age (in hiring decisions) and disability to that list.

By contrast, the law that called for the creation of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) went much further to include more protected categories, including place of birth, ethnicity, appearance, marital status, family type, skin color, education, military record, and sexual orientation. This law grants the NHRCK power to investigate, provide aid and issue non-binding judgements in cases of discrimination, but it doesn’t make such discrimination outright illegal.

As a result, rights groups have been campaigning since 2006 to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law criminalizing the types of discrimination outlined in the NHRCK charter. A legislation was proposed three times in the last 10 years, once with the backing of the NHRCK itself, only to fail again and again under pressure from conservative and religious groups. The attempt at constitutional reform effectively amounts to trial number four.

In addition to bolstering the anti-discrimination clause, how to word the phrase on marriage in the constitution has received much attention. Rights groups proposed changing the current phrase “yangseong pyeongdeung” (equality for both sexes) to “seong pyeongdeung” (sexual equality).

While somewhat ambiguous in the original Korean, the common interpretation of seong pyeongdeung is that it implies possibility of marriage between non-heterosexual couples. The spellings of the two phrases in Korean differ only in the absence of a single syllable – yang (both) – but conservative groups fear that this change would result in LGBT groups achieving their agenda with just one stroke of the delete key.

On a government website detailing the proposed changes to the constitution, the two pages on the website dealing with expanded rights for sexual minorities were flooded with thousands of angry comments, nearly all declaring opposition in no uncertain terms. (Meanwhile, pages on the site related to other points of discussion so far have generally fewer than 10 comments each.)


Changing the Constitution Is Hard

Pro-LGBT activists, if they are to succeed in changing the constitution to their advantage, have their work cut out for them. Their desired changes first must become part of the proposed amendment, and then must be voted for in the National Assembly.

Center-right and right-wing parties together enjoy a slim majority on the constitutional reform committee and in the National Assembly’s current makeup, and some of members of the reform committee have been spotted attending anti-LGBT rallies. Setting the barrier even higher, any proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to become law. The current ruling party is center-left but its members risk losing public support if they voice pro-LGBT views publicly, given that opinions on same-sex marriage, while far more favorable than before, still remain at 34 percent. The only consolation is that younger generations show more empathy than their elders.

Even if all these hurdles are overcome, constitutional protection wouldn’t change life for LGBT communities overnight. In a deeply conservative country with powerful Christian organizations, sexual minorities would still face significant hardships.

But at least they would finally have a tool to begin asserting themselves legally and forcefully. That will be a start.


Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) is in favor of repealing South Chungcheong Province’s human rights ordinance. It is the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) — a different entity from the NCCK — that has called for repealing said ordinance.

The National Council of Churches in Korea, through their human rights office, has issued press releases stating their opposition to repealing the ordinance. Those statements can be read here (in Korean). We sincerely apologized for this error.


Cover image: A man took to a stage in downtown Gwangju on Sep. 2, 2017, to condemn potential constitutional reform extending protection to sexual minorities. (Source: KHTV)