SEOUL, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Same-sex couple Kim Yong-min and So Seong-wook filed a lawsuit against South Korea's national health insurance agency on Thursday over its removal of So's status as a dependent family member, a move they claim violates their rights.
In February of last year, Kim, 30, registered So, 29, as his dependent under the National Health Insurance Service, South Korea's public scheme that covers almost the entire population.
Although South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, the couple was able to register for health insurance as spouses, in what lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender advocates believe was the first such case in the country.
However, their progress was short-lived, as the NHIS abruptly canceled So's dependent status in October after an article published by local news magazine Hankyoreh 21 highlighted the couple.
"When we first applied, we were wondering if it would be accepted," Kim said at a press conference on Thursday morning outside the Seoul Administrative Court, where the lawsuit was filed. "But it was initially accepted, and we enjoyed our natural rights as a couple for eight months. However, after the article, the NHIS suddenly took away our rights. This lawsuit is to reclaim our lost rights."
Kim said that the insurer's decision violates the core value of the national health system, which is to "make the lives of the people better."
"The lives of same-sex couples like us should also be institutionally protected," he said. "The National Health Insurance Service should embrace more diverse lives, rather than canceling the registration of dependents, saying that it was a mistake."
The lawsuit is calling for So's status to be restored, pointing out that Korean law already recognizes benefits for non-married couples, such as common-law spouses, in other areas.
"It is against the purpose of the health insurance dependent system to deny the status of a dependent simply because they are a same-sex spouse," said Cho Sook-Hyun, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
The LGBT community in South Korea has long been seeking greater rights and a higher profile in a country that remains deeply conservative on a number of social issues.
South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family introduced a plan last month to allow for non-traditional families such as unmarried couples and single-parent households to receive the same rights and protections as married households. However, same-sex couples were not included in the ministry's new legal definition of family.
In addition to a same-sex marriage ban, there are no anti-discrimination laws in place to protect sexual and gender minorities. In the military, consensual sex between men is punishable by up to two years in prison, a policy that Amnesty International condemned in 2019.
A 2019 survey by Gagoonet, the Korean Network for Partnership and Marriage Rights of LGBT, found that same-sex partners faced a host of difficulties such as exclusion from low-cost housing loans targeting newlyweds and legal rights when a spouse or partner is sick or dies.
Same-sex marriage is now allowed in at least 30 countries and territories around the world.
South Korean activists have looked to progress being made in Asian countries such as Japan, where some 74 municipalities have recognized same-sex partnerships, and particularly Taiwan, which legalized same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling in May 2019.
Local advocates point to small steps forward in recent years, such as Korean Air allowing a same-sex Korean couple who were married in Canada to enroll in the airline's family mileage program in 2019.
Public attitudes have also been shifting, especially among the younger generation in South Korea. A 2020 global survey by Pew Research found that just 44% of South Koreans felt that homosexuality should be accepted, but that figure soared to 79% among 18-29 year-olds. The generation gap was wider than in any other country, the study found.
The plaintiffs and their supporters are hoping Thursday's lawsuit will move the issue of LGBT rights forward with greater urgency.
"We are seeing some change, but the change is slow," said Ryu Min-hee, one of the lawyers representing Kim and So in their lawsuit. "So we are trying to hasten the change with litigation and advocacy."
So, the plaintiff, said he hoped the lawsuit would reverberate throughout South Korean society.
"Sexual minorities in South Korea are facing stigma and hatred," he said. "Even so, many of us are living very happily together. I hope with this lawsuit members of the LGBT community will be able to make their own families regardless of their sexual identity. I hope they will be able to live happily and with confidence."