Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images
A South Korean appeals court ruled Tuesday that state health insurance must offer spousal coverage to same-sex couples.
The landmark decision is the country’s first legal recognition of social benefits for same-sex couples. South Korea has not legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Plaintiff So Seong-uk, 32, sued the National Health Insurance Service in 2021 after the agency revoked his dependent status from his partner Kim Yong-min.
Seo and Kim held a wedding to go public with their relationship in 2019. The following year, the health insurance agency accepted Kim’s request to list Seo as his dependent on the same grounds that it provides spouses of heterosexual couples in de facto marriage.
But when the media began reporting the couple’s story, the agency reversed the decision, saying it was a “mistake” and that So was ineligible. A lower court ruled in favor of the agency in 2021, saying same-sex unions cannot be considered the same as heterosexual unions.
That sentence was overturned by an appeals court on Tuesday. Both groups are “essentially the same” as they form an “emotional and economic community” outside the legally defined family relationship, the court ruled. Recognizing dependent status in one group and not another based on sexual orientation “constitutes discriminatory treatment”.
The court acknowledged that overt and covert discrimination against sexual minorities existed in South Korea. But the country’s laws “make it clear that sexual orientation should not be grounds for discrimination,” it said, citing a 2001 law banning discrimination in employment, education and commercial services. Discrimination in public services also has “no place”, the court said.
The National Health Insurance Service says it will appeal the decision to South Korea’s Supreme Court.
At a news conference after the decision, the plaintiff said through tears that “our love won and will win.”
“When I first met Seong-uk ten years ago, we couldn’t find a formal expression to describe our relationship,” said his husband Kim. “Today, our relationship is finally recognized in the legal system.
Kim noted that Tuesday’s victory was “just one of the 1,000 rights that legal marriage guarantees” and called for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
In recent years, some same-sex couples in Korea like So and Kim have held wedding ceremonies. Others have traveled abroad to obtain marriage licenses issued by countries that recognize same-sex marriage, or have tried to register their marriage at local government offices despite an expected refusal.
A small number of lawmakers have tried to pass same-sex civil union laws over the past decade, but no bill has been formally introduced in the legislature due to fierce opposition.
Lawyer Park Han-hee, who represents So Seong-uk, acknowledged that this week’s ruling may not lead to the expansion of other social benefits, such as pensions, due to differences in legal interpretation. But Park is still optimistic that the verdict will serve as “decisive evidence” in the fight for broader rights, including marriage equality.
“If the court’s logic is that excluding same-sex couples from health insurance is unfair, then naturally excluding them from marriage should also be seen as unfair,” Park said.