Korea, Republic of

Last Updated 28 October 2020

The Republic of Korea (“South Korea”) generally protects and, in practice, respects freedom of religion, but there remain some religious privileges in place that are unavailable to the non-religious. In addition, conscientious objectors continue to be incarcerated by the government and “non-ethnic” Koreans face discrimination.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

There is no state religion in South Korea. The constitution generally provides for freedom of religion (but not ‘religion or belief’ or similar). Article 20 declares:

(1) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of religion.
(2) No state religion shall be recognized, and religion and state shall be separated.1elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_service/lawView.do?lang=ENG&hseq=1

Religious institutions are tax exempt, with no such exemptions for specifically humanist or non-religious groups.

Buddhist groups have complained in the past that the government is religiously biased against them.2https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/world/asia/14iht-buddhist.1.16935374.html

On 3 June 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) released a report showing that the overwhelming majority of conscientious objectors worldwide (92.5%) are South Korean nationals. Military service is compulsory with no right to conscientious objection and no civilian alternative.3ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ConscientiousObjection_en.pdf

Education and children’s rights

Religious instruction is not allowed in public schools, however, private schools are permitted to conduct religious activities for children.

In a response to rising Christian evangelism in the country, university students in several Korean Universities have set up Atheist student groups.4koreabang.com/2012/stories/students-launch-atheist-clubs-to-counter-rising-christianity.html

In January 2012, a students’ rights law was lodged for all Seoul-based elementary, middle, and high schools to prohibit use of corporal punishment and discrimination against students on the basis of gender, religion, age, race, sexual orientation, or pregnancy and allows students to stage marches. The law was passed in October 2013.5educationcareers.ie/blog/2013/corporal-punishment-banned-in-seoul-south-korea/

Family, community and society

Korea is a religiously heterogeneous state. It is home to the highest Christian population in East Asia at around 20% Protestant and 8% Catholic. Another dominant religion is Buddhism, which is shared by around 15% of the population. A national census conducted in 2015 reported that 56% of the population of South Korea did not affiliate with any religion, while according to Gallup International 15% identify as “convinced atheists”, potentially making it the fifth largest country for overt atheists in the world. By historical comparison, some figures actually record higher levels of “non-religious” affiliation in the early twentieth century, with non-theistic neo-Confucian beliefs widespread and considered “non-religious”. Other global religions in particular Christianity have gained ground since then, but there has been a marked trend toward overt non-religiousness or atheism in more recent decades.6aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/05/young-south-koreans-turning-religion-170524144746222.html; revolvy.com/topic/Irreligion%20in%20South%20Korea

LGBTQ+ rights

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is still widespread in South Korea. Article 31 of the National Human Rights Commission Act states that:

“no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation”.

However, Article 92 of the Military Penal Code prohibits any sexual activity between people of the same-sex within the military. Same-sex intercourse is referred to as “reciprocal rape”, regardless of consent, and can be punishable by up to a year in prison. Military service is compulsory for all men in South Korea. In May 2017, a soldier was given a six month prison term for having consensual sex with another soldier.7amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/05/south-korea-soldier-convicted-in-outrageous-military-gay-witch-hunt/ In May 2020, some media outlets in Korea mistakenly attributed the source of a COVID-19 outbreak to a gay nightclub venue, which triggered a marked increase in online hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community.8https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/13/covid-19-backlash-targets-lgbt-people-south-korea

Christians represent a powerful lobby for traditional values, with some close links to politicians. The Anti-Homosexuality Christian Solidarity organization based in Seoul organizes social media campaigns supporting “the union of a man and a woman” (i.e. against same-sex marriage and relationships). Under pressure during the 2017 election campaign, Moon Jae-in – who has generally been regarded as progressive and pro-human rights politician – said that he was opposed to homosexuality, comments which he later apologized for.9npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/25/538464851/for-south-koreas-lgbt-community-an-uphill-battle-for-rightshttps://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/south-korean-presidential-hopeful-accused-anti-gay-comments-n751301

In August 2017, an LGBTQ+ rights foundation Beyond The Rainbow was finally allowed to register as a charity under the Ministry of Justice. This followed three years of discriminatory rejections from multiple government agencies.10hrw.org/news/2017/08/04/south-korea-supreme-court-affirms-lgbt-rights

Abortion ban

Article 269 of the Korean Criminal Code defines abortion as a crime. In 1986, The Mother and Child Act provided exceptions including cases of rape, incest, hereditary disorders or in case the mother’s health is in serious danger. However, these exceptions only apply before the 24th week of pregnancy and the decision does not belong to the woman alone: it is necessary under the law to obtain prior permission from the spouse or from a parental figure before undertaking an abortion.

Despite the restrictions, however, abortions are performed and the taboo is declining. The Korean College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggests 3,000 abortions are performed daily.11koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171203000239

Illegal abortion is punishable by up to one year in prison or by a fine of 2 million won (US$ 1,820). Healthcare workers who provide abortions can face up to two years in prison. On average, less than 10 people are prosecuted every year. In April 2020, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled the abortion ban to be unconstitutional and ordered it to be revised by the end of 2020.12https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47890065

Ethnic discrimination

The country’s few ethnic minorities are subject to legal and societal discrimination. Migrants who are not considered to be “ethnic Koreans” face considerable difficulties acquiring citizenship. Widespread xenophobia exists and many migrant workers are forced into abusive employment situations. In November 2018, the arrival of around 500 Yemeni refugees at Jeju island led to anti-immigration protests culminating in 700,000 Koreans signing a protest calling for their deportation.13https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23967&LangID=E

Korea currently lacks a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, which makes it easier to discriminate against ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ individuals. Seven attempts have been made in the past to establish such a law, but they all failed. Most recently, in June 2020, an anti-discrimination bill was put before the National Assembly, but it is yet to be seen whether it will be adopted during the next session. Conservative Protestant groups are reportedly opposed to the law on grounds that it poses a ‘threat’ to their freedom of religion in the name of equality.14https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/07/356_292216.html

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Korea’s criminal defamation law is exceptionally harsh and allows for up to seven years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50 million won ($US 44,577). The law focuses solely on whether what has been written is in the public interest, and not on whether it is true or false.15hrw.org/news/2014/12/14/south-korea-stop-using-criminal-defamation-laws

The National Security Law, enacted in 1948, aimed to limit espionage and other dangers from the North, including publication of messages that are perceived as advocating support for the North. The law, sometimes regarded as a remnant of the Cold War, other times as a necessary bulwark against propaganda from the North, remains controversial in South Korea for its ambiguity and potential criminalization of legitimate free expression.

South Korea has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s fundamental conventions on freedom of associations, and on the right to organize and collectively bargain. The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) and the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU) have been denied the ability to legally register as Unions and are not recognized by the government.16hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/south-korea

Media freedom

The news media in the Republic of Korea is generally free and competitive, newspapers are privately owned and report extensively on the state of the government. However, the existence of the punitive defamation law, under which truthful statements can still lead to criminal liability, continues to exercise a chilling effect on journalistic freedoms. Past prosecutions made pursuant to the defamation law have targeted those exposing political interference by the executive branch, reporting on leaked government documents and criticising the government’s response to crises.17https://www.article19.org/resources/south-korea-repressive-criminal-defamation-provisions-threaten-freedom-of-expression/


1 elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_service/lawView.do?lang=ENG&hseq=1
2 https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/world/asia/14iht-buddhist.1.16935374.html
3 ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ConscientiousObjection_en.pdf
4 koreabang.com/2012/stories/students-launch-atheist-clubs-to-counter-rising-christianity.html
5 educationcareers.ie/blog/2013/corporal-punishment-banned-in-seoul-south-korea/
6 aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/05/young-south-koreans-turning-religion-170524144746222.html; revolvy.com/topic/Irreligion%20in%20South%20Korea
7 amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/05/south-korea-soldier-convicted-in-outrageous-military-gay-witch-hunt/
8 https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/13/covid-19-backlash-targets-lgbt-people-south-korea
9 npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/25/538464851/for-south-koreas-lgbt-community-an-uphill-battle-for-rightshttps://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/south-korean-presidential-hopeful-accused-anti-gay-comments-n751301
10 hrw.org/news/2017/08/04/south-korea-supreme-court-affirms-lgbt-rights
11 koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171203000239
12 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47890065
13 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23967&LangID=E
14 https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/07/356_292216.html
15 hrw.org/news/2014/12/14/south-korea-stop-using-criminal-defamation-laws
16 hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/south-korea
17 https://www.article19.org/resources/south-korea-repressive-criminal-defamation-provisions-threaten-freedom-of-expression/

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