On Tuesday, February 21, a high court in South Korea made a ground-breaking ruling which entitles same-sex couples to the same national health insurance coverage as heterosexual couples.
The decision came after a same-sex couple, So Sung-uk and Kim Yong-min, challenged the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) for not honouring a policy that permits one partner to be exempt from making health insurance payments if their spouse meets certain employment conditions.
Initially, the couple was able to register So Sung-uk under the policy as a dependent, but the NHIS later denied their right to receive spousal coverage even though the service would grant the coverage to a heterosexual couple.
Although the court didn't recognize the gay couple as common-law partners, it said state's health insurance program's exemption of same-sex couples from the beneficiary system can be viewed as discrimination based on sexual orientation. https://t.co/wN0xlFqQ8Q
— The Korea Times (@koreatimescokr) February 21, 2023
The pair challenged the policy in court in January 2022. At the time, the Seoul Administrative lower court denied the petition stating that it did not recognise the couple as common-law partners and that they would have to make separate health insurance payments.
In an unexpected turn of events, the high court overturned the January 2022 lower court decision, and ruled in the couple’s favour, ordering the insurance provider to reinstate the same benefits.
The two have been living together since 2017 and had a wedding ceremony in 2019. While their marriage is not legally recognised in South Korea, the insurance company would recognise a heterosexual couple as having a common law marriage under the same conditions, and spousal coverage would be afforded.
🇰🇷 South Korea has recognised the legal rights of same-sex couples for the first time, following a landmark ruling by the Seoul high court.
🧑⚖️ The court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same health insurance rights as heterosexual couples. pic.twitter.com/erF5RO6Vzq
— Openly 🏳️🌈 (@Openly) February 21, 2023
The high court determined that the NHIS was behaving in a discriminatory manner by refusing to extend the same benefits to partners in a same-sex relationship.
This ruling essentially recognises that the same-sex couple has a common-law marriage. Prior to this decision, the South Korean government had never recognised the legal status of an LGBTQ+ couple before.
Amnesty International researcher, Boram Jang, said, “This is an important decision that moves South Korea closer to achieving marriage equality…There is still a long way to go to end discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, but this ruling offers hope that prejudice can be overcome.”
The case will still be challenged in the Supreme Court, but activists are calling the verdict a major victory toward LGBTQ+ equality.
Same-sex marriages are still not permitted in South Korea, although public pressure is increasing to change the law. Last year, in another landmark LGBTQ+ ruling, South Korea granted refugee status on the basis of transgender identity for the first time.
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