S Korea court landmark ruling recognises same-sex couple’s rights

Court rules that So Seong-wook and Kim Yong-min should be treated the same as a heterosexual couple by state insurer.

A South Korean court has delivered a landmark ruling by recognising the rights of a same-sex couple for the first time, with activists hailing the verdict as a major victory for LGBTQ equality in the country.

The ruling in the case on Tuesday – which will now go to the Supreme Court – was brought by a gay couple, So Seong-wook and Kim Yong-min. So had sued South Korea’s National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) in 2021 because it had terminated benefits for his partner, Kim, whom he had registered as a dependent, after the service discovered they were a gay couple.

So and Kim live together and held a wedding ceremony in 2019 but their marriage had no legal validity as South Korea does not recognise same-sex marriage.

The Seoul High Court’s ruling is the “first recognition of the legal status of a same-sex couple”, said lawyer Ryu Minhee, part of a team of lawyers that had represented the plaintiff.

A lower court had ruled in favour of the NHIS last year but in a significant turnaround, the High Court in Seoul overturned that decision on Tuesday, effectively ordering the insurance provider to resume benefits to So’s partner as a dependent.

“Today, we have our rights recognised within the legal system,” So’s partner Kim said after the ruling, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

“This represents a victory for everyone wishing for equality for same-sex couples.”

The court did not give a detailed reasoning for its decision. The NHIS told the AFP news agency it will appeal.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that the court had acknowledged that it was difficult to recognise same-sex unions under the country’s current common-law marriage statutes.

“But those in same-sex marriage are fundamentally identical to those in common-law marriage, except that they are homosexual, given that they form the highly identical union based on emotional and economic needs as well as duties to support and be faithful to each,” Yonhap quoted the court as saying.

Withdrawing spousal insurance coverage “constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation and goes against the object of the state health insurance benefits”, the court said, according to Yonhap.

“It should be considered that the notion of living communities becomes different from the past in accordance with changing times and circumstances,” the court added.

“Belonging to a minority group means being different from the majority, but not anything incorrect or wrong in itself,” the court also said, according to Yonhap.

Though South Korea still has a “long way to end discrimination … this ruling offers hope that prejudice can be overcome”, Boram Jang of Amnesty International said in a statement.

“This ruling is significant as the first decision legally recognising same-sex couples to be made by a court at any level in South Korea”, Jang said.

While South Korea does not recognise same-sex marriages, gay relationships are not criminalised. LGBTQ people tend to live largely under the radar.

Activists have long emphasised the need for legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a much-discussed anti-discrimination law has languished in the South Korean parliament for years, due to a lack of consensus among parliamentarians.

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