SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — When a South Korean court this week delivered the country's biggest legal victory for marriage equality, Kim Yong-min was immediately aware of how much – and how little – the ruling meant for LGBT rights.
No one questioned the symbolic significance of Tuesday's verdict, which found 32-year-old Kim must be allowed coverage as a dependent under his partner's national health insurance plan. It was the first time a South Korean court has ever recognized any right for same-sex couples.
On the other hand, the victory was exceedingly limited, as Kim conceded in an interview with VOA. "When Koreans are married to someone of the opposite sex, they have about a thousand rights. We managed to get only one of those," he said.
Winning that right required a two-year legal battle for Kim and his husband, So Seong-wook. The couple held a wedding ceremony in 2019, but it was not legally recognized by South Korea, which does not acknowledge same-sex partnerships.
In 2020, apparently because of a clerical error, So was able to register Kim as his spouse with the National Health Insurance Service. That allowed Kim to be covered as a dependent on So's health care plan. After discovering the couple was gay, the NHIS withdrew the coverage and a lower court last year upheld that decision.
On Tuesday, Seoul's High Court ordered Kim's coverage be reinstated, saying the NHIS had provided no grounds to treat same-sex unions differently from common-law marriages, which are granted spousal benefits under the insurer's rules. The NHIS says it will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Despite its narrow scope, rights activists hope the verdict can establish a precedent, enabling future rulings based on the same principles of equality and nondiscrimination.
"Now we have a legal basis to demand more change," said Lina Yoon, a Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Achieving meaningful change is no small task, considering the rampant discrimination against, and even criminalization of, the LGBT community in South Korea.
Under a provision of the Military Criminal Act, soldiers can be punished with up to two years in prison if they engage in same-sex activity. In recent years, South Korean courts have limited the law's application, yet refused to scrap it.
Activists have also pressured South Korea's National Assembly to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that would provide protections for a wide range of marginalized groups. But such a law failed to materialize, even when South Korea's liberal Democratic Party controlled the presidency and secured a legislative supermajority in early 2020.
President Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative who took office in May, has warned that recognizing same-sex couples could have a "significant social impact." He has also courted social conservatives who have traditional views on gender.
Yoon's approach has satisfied many evangelical Christian groups, a major force in South Korean politics, who often hold large public protests against LGBT rights. Such groups broadly condemned Tuesday's ruling.
"This is a dangerous judgment, extra-legal and arrogant, based on judicial activism and it must be rectified by the Supreme Court," said Cheun Yun-sung with the Institute for Legal Policy for Freedom and Equality, a Seoul-based group of Christian legal scholars.
In Cheun's view, the ruling may lead other individuals, such as roommates who do not even have romantic partnerships, to conclude they also deserve the same rights given to those in common-law marriages.
"It is dangerous and misleading to conclude, based on the court's ruling and judicial activism, that there is social consensus within Korea on same-sex marriage," he told VOA.
Polling on such issues is mixed. Nearly 6 in 10 South Koreans oppose the idea of same-sex marriage, according to a 2022 survey by the Hankook Research polling firm. However, 67% of South Koreans supported the passage of an anti-discrimination law, according to a 2022 poll conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
"A small number of voices get a disproportionate amount of attention," said Yong Hye-in, a National Assembly representative who is part of the progressive Basic Income Party.
Yong, who supports LGBT rights, said her fellow lawmakers have a responsibility to protect the rights of marginalized groups. She hopes the High Court ruling will spur further progress toward LGBT rights.
"The legislature and the executive branch should welcome this judicial judgment and work harder on their responsibility to protect minorities," she told VOA in an interview at her office Thursday.
Kim and his husband will celebrate their legal victory in Australia, where they plan to attend the ongoing Sydney WorldPride Festival.
"Once the verdict was announced, people celebrated this ruling as if it were their own personal matter," Kim said. However, he said more sweeping successes are needed to ensure marriage equality.
"In my opinion, we can't afford to fight like this every time we want to have a basic right, and we won't win every time, either. It took us two years to get this single right," he said. "That's why same-sex marriage legislation should be passed quickly, so that marital rights can be given to everyone." (HN/VOA)