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S. Korean court recognizes same-sex partner rights for first time in landmark ruling

So Seong-uk (L) and Kim Yong-min (R)
Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

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    A South Korean high court ruled on Tuesday that same-sex partners are eligible for coverage under their spouse’s government health insurance.

    The landmark ruling is the first legal recognition of same-sex couples in a country where same-sex marriage has not yet been legalized.

    Last year, plaintiff So Seong-uk sued the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) for revoking his status as a dependent to his partner, Kim Yong-min, and requiring the couple to make separate payments. 

    In South Korea, spouses with no income are exempt from making health insurance contributions if their partner is employed.

    A lower court last month rejected the couple’s petition, stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

    Tuesday’s ruling overturned that decision. 

    The court’s verdict determined that rejection of a person’s status as a dependent based on sexual orientation “constitutes a discriminatory treatment.”

    The plaintiff and his partner are both male, but they agreed to recognize each other as loving partners who take care of each other. One financially relies on the other. They declared their partnership before their families and friends. This makes their relationship no different in essence from that of a married couple.

    A statement given by a Seoul high court judge says So is no longer required to make insurance contributions and that NHIS is responsible for the legal fees of both parties. 

    The NHIS is planning to appeal the case to South Korea’s Supreme Court.

    For the couple, their relationship has finally been recognized by Seoul’s legal system. “I feel delighted because I felt like the judges told us through this court decision that my feelings of love for my husband shall not be a target of curse, ignorance or insult,” said a tearful So after the ruling, according to The Korea Herald.

    “I can say with confidence that love wins, and discrimination or hate do not.”

    So and Kim first met over 10 years ago and held their wedding ceremony in May 2019. Since South Korea does not allow same-sex marriage registration, the couple has not been able to legalize their union.

    So’s attorney, Park Han-hee, said that she hopes Tuesday’s ruling sets a precedent against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

    “This court ruling is not just about individuals fighting over insurance payments,” Park, who is transgender, said. “Instead, I hope the ruling can set a precedent that discourages the state from hindering same-sex couples’ rights.”

    Park is also hopeful that the ruling will serve as a step toward marriage equality in South Korea, adding: “If the court’s logic is that exclusion of same-sex couples from health insurance is unjust, then naturally, their exclusion from marriage should also be seen as unjust.”

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