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South Korean same-sex couple sues well being insurer for equal rights

SEOUL, February 18 (UPI) – Same-sex couple Kim Yong-min and So Seong-wook filed a lawsuit against the South Korean Health Insurance Agency on Thursday for the revocation of So’s dependent family status. A move that they claim violates their rights.

Last February, 30-year-old Kim registered 29-year-old So as his family member with the National Health Insurance Service, South Korea’s public system that covers almost the entire population.

Although South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, the couple was able to enroll for health insurance as spouses, which was the first such case in the country, according to advocates of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people.

Their progress was short-lived, however, as the NHIS abruptly lifted So’s dependent status in October after an article on local news magazine Hankyoreh 21 highlighted the couple.

“When we first applied, we wondered if it would be accepted,” Kim said at a press conference Thursday morning in front of the Seoul Administrative Court, where the lawsuit was filed. “But it was initially accepted and we enjoyed our natural rights as a couple for eight months. However, after the article, the NHIS suddenly took our rights away. This lawsuit is supposed to reclaim our lost rights.”

Kim said the insurer’s decision violates the core value of the national health system, which is “to make people’s lives better”.

“The lives of same-sex couples like us should also be institutionally protected,” he said. “National health insurance service should lead more diverse lives instead of canceling loved ones’ registrations and saying it was a mistake.”

The lawsuit calls for the restoration of So’s status and notes that Korean law already recognizes benefits for unmarried couples such as spouses under general law in other areas.

“It is against the purpose of the health insurance-dependent system to deny dependent status just because they are a same-sex spouse,” said Cho Sook-Hyun, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit.

The LGBT community in South Korea has long sought rights and awareness in a country that remains deeply conservative on a number of social issues.

The South Korean Ministry of Equality and Family introduced a plan last month that allows nontraditional families such as unmarried couples and single parents to enjoy the same rights and protections as married households. However, same-sex couples have not been included in the Ministry of Family’s new legal definition.

In addition to a same-sex marriage ban, there are no anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual and gender-specific minorities. In the military, consensual sex between men is punishable by up to two years in prison, a policy that Amnesty International condemned in 2019.

A 2019 survey by Gagoonet, the Korean network for partnership and marriage rights of LGBT people, found that same-sex partners faced a number of difficulties, such as being excluded from low-cost home loans for newlyweds and legal rights if a spouse or partner is sick or dies.

Same-sex marriages are now legal in at least 30 countries and territories around the world.

South Korean activists have looked for progress in Asian countries like Japan, where 74 communities have recognized same-sex partnerships, and particularly in Taiwan, which legalized same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling in May 2019.

Local advocates point to small strides in recent years, such as Korean Air, which allows a same-sex Korean couple who were married in Canada to enroll in the airline’s family mileage program in 2019.

Public attitudes have also changed, particularly among the younger generation in South Korea. A 2020 global poll by Pew Research found that only 44% of South Koreans believed that homosexuality should be accepted, but that number rose to 79% for 18-29 year olds. The generation gap was wider than any other country, the study found.

Plaintiffs and their supporters hope Thursday’s lawsuit will move the issue of LGBT rights with greater urgency.

“We’re seeing some changes, but the changes are slow,” said Ryu Min-hee, one of the lawyers representing Kim and So in their lawsuit. “So we’re trying to accelerate change through litigation and advocacy.”

The plaintiff therefore hoped that the lawsuit would reverberate throughout South Korean society.

“Sexual minorities in South Korea face stigma and hatred,” he said. “Even so, many of us live very happily together. I hope that members of the LGBT community can start their own families with this lawsuit regardless of their sexual identity. I hope they can live happily and with confidence.”