Report

Public Opinion of Transgender Rights in South Korea

December 2019

Public discourse about the transgender population in South Korea grew dramatically at the beginning of the 21st century. This report analyzes data collected in the Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People survey. It is the first study to examine public opinion of transgender rights in South Korea.

AUTHORS
Highlights
South Korea does not have comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. Sexual orientation is considered a protected class, but gender identity is not.
There are no legal barriers to receiving gender-affirming care, but South Korea’s national health insurance system does not cover it.
Young people were more likely than older people to agree that transgender people should be allowed to marry a person of their birth sex.
Data Points
60%
of participants say transgender people should be protected from discrimination
59%
say they should be allowed to have gender-affirming surgery
12%
of participants report having transgender acquaintances, friends, or family members
45%
of participants agree transgender people should be allowed into the military
36%
do not agree
Report

Introduction

This report presents information on public opinion about transgender people and their rights in South Korea. We analyzed data from The Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People survey, South Korea panel to provide information on views toward transgender people, their rights, and their status in society. This report:

  • describes attitudes toward transgender people and their rights and status in society,
  • investigates associations between individual-level participant characteristics and public opinion, and,
  • fills gaps in the current literature on public opinion regarding transgender people in South Korea.

Previous surveys of South Korean adults have indicated that public opinion about lesbian and gay people is much more negative compared with public opinion about other minority groups, such as migrant workers and North Korean defectors.1 Public attitudes toward transgender people may be similar to attitudes toward lesbian and gay people. However, no research has been conducted on public opinion regarding transgender people and their rights in South Korea. Research in other countries has found that factors such as individuals’ contact with transgender people, as well as their gender and age have been found to predict significantly higher rates of support for transgender rights.2 However, the available literature is sparse, and additional research is needed, particularly research utilizing representative samples from the general population, to build a better understanding of attitudes towards transgender people and their rights.

Public discourse about transgender population in South Korea grew dramatically at the beginning of the 21st century. This was due, in part, to coverage by the Korean media in 2001 of a celebrity named Risu Ha who came out as a transgender woman in a national commercial. The focus on Risu Ha sparked attention towards transgender people in South Korea.3 Since that time, the public has become more familiar with the term transgender and issues affecting transgender people as the transgender rights movement has become increasingly organized.4 Portrayals of transgender people in the media have largely been limited to stereotypes of transgender women that do not accurately reflect the diverse experiences of transgender women or of transgender people more broadly.

South Korea does not have comprehensive anti-discrimination laws; however, sexual orientation is included as a protected class in the anti-discrimination clause of the National Human Rights Commission Act. Although gender identity is not explicitly included as a protected class under the law, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has interpreted the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation to cover discrimination on the basis of gender identity and against transgender people.567

Transgender people can change their legal gender on identification documents with a court decision, which is issued if individuals meet strict requirements including undergoing gender-affirming surgery, sterilization, being 19 years old or older, not being married, and other requirements.8 Though there are no legal barriers to receiving gender-affirming care, Korea’s national health insurance system does not cover this care. Options for transgender people to access gender-affirming care are, therefore, limited in South Korea.9

Regarding family formation, transgender people may marry a person of the opposite gender but only after their gender change has been legally recognized, and while the Constitution does not restrict marriage to only between a man and a woman, there are also no affirmative laws regarding whether transgender (or cisgender) people can marry a person of the same gender.10 Despite the lack of a definitive legal stance on same-sex marriage, courts have yet to issue or recognize same-sex marriages in South Korea.11 In addition, there are no laws regarding whether transgender people are allowed to conceive or give birth, nor whether they can adopt.12

While military service in South Korea is mandatory for all “able-bodied men,” different standards apply to transgender women and men.13 Transgender men, even those whose gender transition has been legally recognized, are generally exempt from service as their masculinity is considered lower than that of cisgender men.14 Transgender women whose gender transition has been legally recognized are exempt from service. However, most transgender individuals at the age of conscription have not undergone a legal gender reassignment recognition process15 due to the strict requirements for such a legal recognition.16 Thus, most transgender women either have to join the military under their sex assigned at birth, as they are considered male, or have to get legal exemption from military service through a diagnosis of “[severe] gender identity disorder.”17

Methodology

This report analyzed data gathered for the 2017 Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People survey about participants’ familiarity with transgender people,18 as well as attitudes toward transgender people, their rights, and their status in society from online panel assembled by Ipsos. The South Korean sample included panelists ages 16 to 64 who could complete a survey in Korean (see Appendix II for methodological details). Data from the South Korean panel were weighted to reflect the South Korean population ages 16 to 64.19

The analytic sample included 500 participants. Below we present weighted percentages and 95% confidence intervals to describe participants’ demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, familiarity with transgender people, and attitudes toward transgender people and related public policies. We conducted weighted multinomial logistic regression analyses to determine whether individual-level characteristics, such as sex, age, education, income, and familiarity with transgender people, were associated with dependent variables, such as attitudes toward transgender people, their rights, and their status in society. These analyses excluded individuals (n=8) who identified as transgender because the group was too small to generate reliable estimates for transgender participants. We presented additional information regarding regression analyses in Appendix I.

In our analyses, we used Stata 14 and 15. Ipsos provided survey weights which allowed results to be adjusted to be representative of individuals in South Korea ages 16 to 64. The UCLA North General Institutional Review Board (NGIRB) deemed this study exempt from review as human subjects research due to the use of de-identified data. We included further methodological details in Appendix II, Ipsos Methodology Addendum for Single Country Briefs.

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Public Opinion of Transgender Rights in South Korea

Korea Institute of Public Administration. (2017). Korea Social Integration Survey 2017, Seoul, South Korea: Korea Insti-tute of Public Administration; Ahn, S., Kim, I., Ma, K., Moon, H., & Lee, M. (2015). The 2015 Study on Multicultural Accept-ability in Korea. Seoul, South Korea: Ministry of Gender Equality & Family.

Flores, A. R.. (2015). Attitudes toward transgender rights: Perceived knowledge and secondary interpersonal contact. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 3(3): 398-416.

Yi, H., Lee, H., Yoon, J., Park, J., and Kim, S-S. (2015). Transgender People’s Access to Health Care in Korea. Health and Social Welfare Review, 35(4): 64-94. Report in Korean.

Ibid.

National Human Rights Commission of Korea. (2008). Standards of Judgement on Discrimination, Seoul, South Korea: National Human Rights Commission of Korea

Committee on Human Rights Violations of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Decision of 20 March 2019, 17-Jinjung-0726700.

Kim, J., Kim, H., Ryu, M., Park, H., Song, J. E., and Lee, S. (2018). Human Rights Situation of LGBTI in South Korea 2017
(한국 LGBTI 인권현황 2017). Seoul, South Korea: SOGILAW. Retrieved from: http://annual.sogilaw.org/review/?module=-file&act=procFileDownload&file_srl=2041&sid=e942dc24b2048ec6e0c19ac51f3e0df5. Report in Korean and English.

Ibid.

Yi et al. (2015)

Kim et al. (2018)

Ibid.

Ibid.

Yi, H., & Gitzen, T. (2018). Sex/Gender Insecurities: Trans Bodies and the South Korean Military. TSQ: Transgender Stud-ies Quarterly, 5(3), 378-393.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Kim et al. (2018)

Yi & Gitzen (2018)

We used the term “transgender” throughout this report to refer to “people [who] dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.” This definition was intentionally broad so as to encompass the diversity of identities of gender minority peoples in the 27 countries surveyed in the larger Ipsos survey project.

Clark, J. & Jackson, C. (2018, January). Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People. Ipsos. Retrieved from: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/global-attitudes-toward-transgender-people