Seoul’s Broken Promises on HIV Testing
Image Credit: Wheeler Cowperthwaite

Seoul’s Broken Promises on HIV Testing


A year ago, South Korea announced at the 19th International AIDS Conference that it had eliminated immigration regulations that discriminated against people living with HIV and prevented them from entering, living, and working in the country. But that announcement, celebrated at the meeting of more than 20,000 scientists, presidents, business leaders and grass-roots activists from around the globe, hardly tells the full story.

The conference was the first time the meeting was held in the US since 1990. It had returned to the U.S. in response to the end of a 22-year ban on admitting people living with HIV to the country. Understandably, HIV-related travel restrictions got particular attention.

Worldwide, about 45 countries have some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. These laws and policies have no basis in public health. The World Health Organization first concluded in 1987 that screening international travelers was not an effective strategy to prevent the spread of HIV. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that restrictions based on HIV status are discriminatory and violate human rights. UNAIDS and the Global Business Coalition on Health presented a pledge at the conference by the chief executive officers of 24 multinational companies opposing HIV travel restrictions.

At the meeting, the Republic of South Korea co-hosted a session with UNAIDS on the issue. Kim Bong-hyun, deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs, in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry acknowledged that discrimination based upon HIV status violated human rights and announced: “I am pleased to state, on behalf of my government, that the Republic of Korea has no HIV-specific travel restrictions under the Immigration Control Act and its implementing regulations. Lifting travel restrictions is a small step on our long journey to realize a society where there is no discrimination against people with HIV.”

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of that pledge does not quite meet the reality that foreigners face in South Korea. The problem is that while claiming to have addressed HIV travel restrictions makes for positive international relations at AIDS conferences, at home xenophobia, stigma and discrimination get precedence. Despite international calls for South Korea to end HIV-specific travel restrictions, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the government is trying to play both sides. At international AIDS conferences they claim to have removed all barriers, but to nationalistic audiences within South Korea, they blame foreigners as the source of HIV.

Not everyone is buying the double-talk. Just before last year’s AIDS conference, the UN committee that monitors the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination accepted a complaint against South Korea’s mandatory HIV tests for foreign teachers. The complaint says the requirement is racial discrimination, plain and simple. The committee gave the government three months to respond. Nearly a year later, in April, the government finally did.

The government neither denied that foreign teachers face mandatory HIV tests nor claimed the tests were necessary for public health reasons. In fact, it said nothing about the testing of foreign teachers upon entry, and countered that Education Ministry guidelines no longer require re-testing upon renewal of annual contracts.

This evasive, and incomplete, response is in stark contrast to the promises made about lifting all travel restrictions. If the government of South Korea is sincere about ending discrimination against people living with HIV, it could start by ending its own discrimination against people living with HIV. Foreign teachers say the bottom line is the same as it has always been: they are required to be tested for HIV when they enter the country.  If they want to renew their contract they are almost always required to be tested again. If they are positive, they could be denied a teaching contract and a residency permit. 

The expansion of access to HIV treatment has been heralded around the world. Promising research suggests that universal treatment can lead to sharp drops in HIV transmission. Top officials speak of how we can “end AIDS.”

Yet being infected with HIV still carries considerable stigma in many countries, including South Korea. Blaming foreigners for transmitting HIV prevents South Koreans from recognizing that HIV is not the problem of “others” but, as in every other country, it is transmitted locally and should be addressed with accurate information and compassion. UNAIDS, instead of co-hosting meetings with South Korea, should press them to abandon HIV policies that violate human rights and have no basis in public health.  

South Korea’s policy of HIV testing of foreign teachers has real consequences for the country’s success in addressing its domestic HIV epidemic. The high levels of stigma caused by linking HIV to foreigners has made many ethnic Koreans choose to forgo testing due to fear of prejudice. One lesson learned early in the HIV epidemic by many countries, but not yet by South Korea, is that pandering to nationalistic and xenophobic groups in the response to HIV makes for bad public health policy. HIV in South Korea is not being transmitted in classrooms, and cannot be fought by mandatory HIV testing of teachers.

The number of countries around the world that have eliminated HIV travel restrictions steadily increases. In addition to the U.S., in the last few years China, Namibia, Ukraine, Armenia, Fiji, Mongolia and the Republic of Moldova have lifted these travel bans.

If the Republic of South Korea makes good on its promises, and matches rhetoric with action, it can rightfully join these countries, and the 133 other countries, territories and areas around the world that do not impose any HIV specific travel restrictions. Ending mandatory HIV testing of foreign teachers will help South Korea address HIV transmission and accomplish the goal of a society without discrimination – against people living with HIV and against foreigners.

Joe Amon is the director of the Health Division at Human Rights Watch

July 26, 2013 at 16:02

If they want to renew their contract they are almost always required to be tested again. If they are positive, they could be denied a teaching contract and a residency permit."

This article is absolutely correct.  The way they are treating foreign teachers is unethical.  They are subjected to HIV tests EVERY year that they want to teach there.  Even if they haven't left Korea since the last time they were tested!!  The law is so insane and discriminatory there.  Something has to change.

July 20, 2013 at 09:50

uh huh philippines? that country has one of the lowest hiv preveilance in the world.

but i still get what you mean. natives who go out in the country for "fun" are more prone to hiv rather than those foreigners who are working for legit jobs.


July 14, 2013 at 04:19

The same law is largely exeisting in Saudi Arabia, Qatar,Kuwait, United Arab Emerites, Kuwait and most of Middle East countries they test you for reseidence
Permit and renewal you if you test positive they hand
Cuffed you and deport you right away we need Aids activist to be more active in the Mid East and to stop
This discrimination .

July 2, 2013 at 13:21

Are you serious? This article is about South Korea, not the history of AIDS, and moreover you are mistaken; the epidemic began in Africa.

Allow me to describe your logic: one country allegedly made a mistake twenty years ago, and this somehow excuses the actions of the South Korean government? Let me say that I think a foreign English teacher's blood would be much cleaner than an adjeossi who went on a "golf trip" to the Philippines.

Discrimination or mistakes in one country do not excuse current behavior in Korea. Quit being an apologist and recognize when Korea's not perfect.

June 30, 2013 at 19:06

Nothing in this article mentions about the fact that the AIDS epidemic first broke out in the U.S. and then spread to the rest of the world mainly because the government did not quarantine people infected with the virus and even allowed contaminated blood products to be exported.

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