South Korea’s upcoming presidential election is just one month away. But overshadowed by other issues such as housing prices and family misbehavior, the two leading candidates Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party have tiptoed around the issue of an anti-discrimination law.
One party’s stance on the issue, however, has been crystal clear –-- an anti-discrimination bill needs to be passed now, said Rep. Jang Hye-young of the progressive Justice Party.
“An anti-discrimination law has been a campaign promise since the 2020 legislative elections both at the candidate and party level. The Justice Party and candidate Sim Sang-jung believe it’s high time that the legislation was passed,” said the 34-year-old rookie lawmaker in an exclusive interview with The Korea Herald.
“South Korea has become the 10th largest economy, yet discrimination still occurs in some people’s lives every day.”
Justice Party Rep. Jang Hye-young at the Herald Studio in Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Jang is one of the youngest politicians in South Korea -- a country where roughly 4 in 5 lawmakers are men. Young, outspoken and a woman, she has fostered a following on social media among young progressives, feminists and sexual minorities, as clips of her defending women’s safety, feminism and protection of sexual minorities in a TV debate went viral. Since taking office in 2020, she has also been an ardent supporter of anti-discrimination legislation.
Before politics, she was many things – an auteur, singer/song writer, author, YouTuber and human rights activist. When asked why she entered politics, she said it was after “feeling tired” of waiting for politicians to bring real change that she decided to do it herself.
Jang also has a sister who has a disability. The lawmaker said the world seen through the lens of her sister looks very different to what those without disabilities see. She also has LGBT friends. Her social circle has opened her eyes to social issues that many people face in South Korea.
“When you discover one kind of discrimination, you naturally start to notice other kinds of discrimination too,” she said.
An old controversy
Examples of discrimination are easily found in South Korean society today.
Seven in 10 LGBT youths hide their identity at work, with over 40 percent having experienced a negative attitude towards sexual minorities at work, according to a recent survey by LGBT Youth group Dawoom. There have been multiple reports of xenophobia and discrimination against foreigners during the pandemic – shops refusing to serve foreigners or municipal governments imposing mandatory COVID-19 testing on all foreign residents. The central government’s failure last year to recognize foreigners’ vaccinations if they received them abroad also prompted criticism from ambassadors of several countries.
In December, the country’s unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, was also urged by the Human Rights Watch to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to address “pervasive discrimination against marginalized groups” in the country.
The push to enact an anti-discrimination law began in the early 2000s in South Korea and the first government-led bill was proposed in 2007 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. But following a backlash, mainly from conservative religious groups, discrimination against sexual orientation was removed from the bill.
Since then, there have been several legislative attempts, but none made any meaningful progress.
Rep. Jang proposed another bill in June 2020 which is designed to prevent discrimination based on aspects including gender, disability, age, nationality, race, religion and sexual orientation. But as with other similar proposals, it has not even once been debated in the Assembly.
Proposals for an anti-discrimination law have proven controversial due to opposition from mostly right-wing Christian groups. Their backlash has forced many politicians to tread carefully. But recent surveys have shown there is strong support, even among religious people.
“Fifteen years ago, I would’ve said backlash from religious groups is the biggest obstacle. But now it is more to do with the politicians and their force of habit,” said the politician.
From right: Reps. Kwon In-sook, Lee Sang-min, Park Ju-min and Jang Hye-yeong pose for a photo after a press conference demanding action to pass the anti-discrimination law. (Joint Press Corps)
The popular rhetoric to use to oppose the debate, she continued, is to bring up the need to reach social consensus. “But social consensus can no longer be used as an excuse. Citizens have done all they can and the onus is now on the politicians who have delayed to reach political consensus.”
Of course, a law alone won’t solve all problems. But Rep. Jang is convinced it will create a pathway to solving cases of discrimination more easily while working as a deterrent.
“Once passed, people will have a standard to look to when they think about discrimination, how to be careful and reflect on themselves.
“We’ll have a reasonable tool that protects citizens from unjust discrimination.”
When passed, those who feel discriminated will have a process through which they can report their case to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Then the commission will listen to both sides and decide whether there was unreasonable discrimination. Rep. Jang’s proposed bill would have given the commission the power to impose a fine of up to 30 million won on those who ignore corrective orders without a good reason after being found of engaging in discrimination.
Lawmaker Jang Hye-young (right) protests alongside Justice Party’s presidential candidate Sim Sang-jung against a proposed two-way TV debate between the two major political parties on Jan. 30. (The Justice Party)
Is South Korea ready?
One survey conducted last year by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea showed nearly 9 in 10 people agreed that an anti-discrimination law should be enacted. Some 42 percent of Protestants in the country support the legislation while 31.5 percent are against it, according to a survey from the Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development released on Thursday.
A petition calling for the adoption of the law, filed by a job applicant who faced discrimination during her job interview, also racked up over 100,000 signatures last year. It prompted a group of lawmakers to put forward a new bill preventing discrimination.
As LGBT awareness has increased and prejudice has dropped, LGBT representation in the media has also become more prevalent, the lawmaker said. She also noted there are various opinions within the church.
“While one side strongly opposes an anti-discrimination law, there are other voices that see the need to enact the legislation within the church,” she explained.
In late October, it was reported that President Moon Jae-in had told his staff that the time had come to consider introducing an anti-discrimination law.
While the report garnered support from the president’s supporters, progressives slammed him for being too late with just a few months remaining in his term. His party has also held more than half of the seats in the Assembly since 2020. Jang agreed.
“It’s a fair criticism. Soon after President Moon took office, he had near 80 percent approval ratings. He had the power to push through with his agenda, even a difficult one. He should’ve made the decision for the human rights of minorities when he had power.”
“His remark almost seems it was designed to help him avoid responsibility.”
Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Jang said more people have realized that anyone can end up being a minority.
“Many people lost what they considered their rights and freedoms overnight just because they contracted the coronavirus.”
As clusters of infections emerged at churches across the country, Jang said she once received an email from churchgoers who came to support anti-discrimination law after being ostracized from another group they used to belong to over their association with church outbreaks.
“The email I received talked about realizing why comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation inclusive of everyone is necessary, how anyone can end up being a subject of discrimination.”
“Sometimes we are a majority but other times we are a minority.”
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