SEOUL, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- The National Human Rights Commission of Korea is urging action to tackle prejudice and hate speech as South Korea's population diversifies.
A recent report from the government watchdog said 6 in 10 South Koreans have experienced hate speech, with women, the elderly, sexual minorities, migrants and people with disabilities among the most targeted.
Legally, it is near impossible to stop.
"There is no law that directly covers hate speech as an issue," Kim Hwa-sook, a commission official, told UPI. "The reason why we need a law is because we need to decide how to identify and respond to hate speech. We need very clear criteria to judge the degree of hate speech and how much punishment is needed."
Nearly 82 percent of the commission's 1,200 survey respondents said they believed hate speech could lead to crime, while roughly 78 percent said it could lead to intense social conflict.
In recent years, a woman was stabbed by a man who gave "women have always ignored me" as his motive. A 14-year-old Russian-Korean boy was lynched by a group of teenagers. And earlier this year, a massive anti-LGBTQ group marched through Seoul amid the city's annual Queer Culture Festival.
"The government should define what hate speech is, present ways for responding to hate and draw a social consensus on it," said the report, released Oct. 28. "The direction of how South Korea regulates hate speech should be carefully reviewed."
South Korea's population is rapidly changing. The number of foreign residents living in the country rose by 8.6 percent last year, according to the justice ministry, while social issues affecting women and members of the LGBTQ+ community are continuously making headlines.
Last year, more than 200,000 South Koreans signed a petition calling for the deportation of some 519 Yemeni people who applied for refugee status. Social media posts called them "terrorists" or accused them of "coming to kill your sons and rape your daughters." Several human rights groups protested, stating that the Ministry of Justice failed to address the anti-Muslim sentiment.
"We academics have studied hate speech a lot, but I believe the government's interest in this issue and willingness to write a hate speech report is a meaningful development," Kim Hwa-sook said.
Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor of international studies at Korea University specializing in social problems, said the overall South Korean population lacks awareness about hate speech and discrimination, especially around race and ethnicity.
"Hate speech in Korea, I think is qualitatively different than that of the U.S. ... In South Korea, we're just coming to terms with the whole issue of human rights," he told UPI. "From what I know, there's no law about discrimination when it comes to ethnicity or race. Even now, our constitution kind of believes in this idea of ethnic homogeneity in Korea. That's what we've always learned: We are one race, one ethnic group."
Many social situations in South Korea have a built-in hierarchy based on age and social ranking. It is acceptable for bosses to berate their employees, for example, while older students might be allowed to haze or bully younger students, Kim said.
"The Korean language is full of these really complex honorifics that can allow for a high level of linguistic violence," Andrew Eungi Kim said. "It's an unequal language: The person with the higher rank can use really abusive language and get away with it. In the Korean context, I think that can easily evolve into hate speech."
The commission ended its report with recommendations for the South Korean government to write hate speech protections into law.
"We need some kind of legal reform or legal action ... We don't have a clear line that separates hate speech from abusive language," Andrew Eungi Kim said. "That needs to change."
Peter W. Choi contributed to this report.