AIDS in South Korea: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
A South Korean activist participates in a protest to demand the government reform its policy over people infected with HIV or AIDS in Seoul (July 8, 2004).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

AIDS in South Korea: Out of Sight, Out of Mind


Despite 30 years of research and one of the most advanced medical systems in the world, HIV/AIDS in South Korea remains shrouded in stigma and neglect.

Widely assumed to be a “gay disease,” even by some of the country’s most influential doctors, AIDS patients are often disowned by family, thrown out of hospitals, and refused vital care. Many foreign residents face mandatory HIV testing, and are deported if found to be HIV-positive – despite government assurances to the UN that such tests ended years ago. Koreans have little understanding of the disease, and in a recent survey most said it would be difficult to get along with a neighbor who is HIV+.

“It isn’t hard to find a doctor, because Korea is a top country for medical treatment,” says Son Moonsoo, the president of the organization Korean People Living with HIV/AIDS (KNP+). “Korea has plenty of medicine and medical practitioners. But it’s only for healthy HIV patients. For people have developed into full-blown AIDS, who need to stay in [a long-term facility] there is nowhere for them to stay.”

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Further, patients who need non-AIDS related procedures – treatment for a broken hip, or even a dental cleaning – are routinely refused care when they reveal their HIV+ status.

Son, who has been HIV+ for 20 years, says stigma around HIV/AIDS has led long-term hospices to refuse admission to the roughly 100 AIDS patients in Korea who need 24-hour hospice care.

“The media has made AIDS seem very dangerous to people,” Son says. “The perception of people with AIDS is one of horror and fear.”

Things became particularly horrible when in 2014, the government revoked the funding for Sudong Yonsei Hospital, a designated AIDS hospice, after a series of abuse scandals, including instances of rape, verbal abuse, and neglect.

Dr. Yeom Ansup, who is president of Sudong Yonsei, as well as the Korean Long Term Hospital Association, says the abuse never happened, the government actually exonerated him, and it is perfectly easy for AIDS patients to get long term care at one of 23 different hospices throughout the country – so long as they agree to be segregated from other patients.

Yeom says that a large number of AIDS patients are drug addicts, mentally ill, and have neurological problems unrelated to HIV/AIDS, and therefore can’t mix with the other, usually more elderly patients. But his “evidence” for these problems is limited to a single study, done 16 years ago at one hospice thousands of miles away, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Apart from being a palliative care physician, Yeom is also a Methodist minister. He says AIDS humang rights groups KNP+ and Nanuri+ lie and “terrorize” him because “most of their members are gay,” and he gives speeches around the country lecturing teenagers that “homosexuality is very dangerous” and that they shouldn’t “choose” to be gay.

Nanuri+ and KNP+ deny they have ever harassed Yeom, and say that the 23 hospices may claim they accept AIDS patients, but in reality they don’t, because of protests from other patients – a phenomenon Yeom blames on Nanuri+ and KNP+. (The Ministry of Health refused to disclose which hospitals would and would not accept AIDS patients.)

Homosexuality has never been acceptable in Korean society, but the sands have shifted in the last 10 years. More LGBT people are speaking out, and as a result, more anti-gay forces have also come out of the woodwork, especially among the country’s powerful Christian conservatives.

Jae Kim, a member of Nanuri+ and KNP+, says that it’s the stigma of being outed as gay that stops many potentially HIV+ individuals from getting tested, and if they end up being HIV+, from being treated.

“South Korea is a male-dominated society, so once you get involved with sexual intercourse with men, it’s kind of like you’re humiliating your masculinity,” Kim says. “Being a gay man is really, really embarrassing to their families, and to their society. So the public really avoids having contact with them.”

Kim also says that even within the gay community, once people find out you’re HIV+, people will often stay away from you: “Once you become involved with someone who has HIV, [other gay men] think that you also have HIV.”

Katharine Moon, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Korea Expert at the Brookings Institution, thinks the relatively small number of HIV+ people in Korea means it’s easy to brush the problem under the carpet. Though there are about 10,000 people who are counted as HIV+ (in a country of 50 million), she says the real number may be “four or five times higher” because of fear of testing.

Moon also cites the feeling that AIDS is a “foreign disease,” brought over by unscrupulous American soldiers and businessmen, and spread by Korean sex workers. “This is a direct, in my view, legacy of this view that sex workers are contaminating, so to speak,” she says.

AIDS being viewed as a foreign evil is most obvious with the mandatory testing of certain foreigners in Korea. During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, activists held demonstrations to demand HIV testing of all foreign visitors, and the press erupted in a sexual panic, urging Koreans not to have sexual relations with foreigners. But no testing was required.

It was only in 2007 that foreign English teachers in Korea were required to undergo mandatory HIV testing. Not a single foreign teacher had been identified as HIV+ in Korean history, but a series of xenophobic news reports, many referring to foreign teachers as sexual predators, caused a moral panic and the government reacted by instituting mandatory HIV tests. Tellingly, these tests are not required of ethnic Koreans.

Benjamin Wagner is an American lawyer who’s been doing work for years on HIV and AIDS issues in Korea.

“You’ve got an adopted Korean, he grows up in a black family let’s say, or a white family, and the two brothers decide to go to Korea and teach English,” Wagner posits. “Neither of them speak any Korean, they both have the same passport.” But the Korean government says, “‘You, your blood is OK. You, no.’ So it’s a marking. [It separates] the sheep and the goats.”

There is reigning confusion throughout the country over who actually needs to get tested and what the law says. South Korean diplomats have repeatedly told the United Nations they do not test foreigners for HIV, and are at the forefront of AIDS tolerance.

But a simple call to the Korean Immigration Hotline to ask for teaching visa requirements clears it up, at least for workers on the ground. Teaching visa candidates “must undergo an HIV/AIDS test,” the operator says, as well as a drug test. Meanwhile, overseas ethnic Koreans have different visas that don’t require testing.

Wagner thinks it’s a simple way of stigmatizing foreigners, especially men, who date Korean women, something that can offend the racial sensitivities of some more conservative Koreans. “They’ve all got AIDS,” Wagner says dryly. “And if you fall in love or something, you’re going to have it to.”

Because South Korea doesn’t have any anti-discrimination legislation, it’s perfectly legal on the surface to discriminate against anyone for any reason – race, gender, ethnicity, or health, including HIV status. But Wagner, who taught International Law at Kyunghee University, says anti-discrimination laws are in effect in Korea, because of the international treaties Korea has ratified.

South Korea has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and many other treaties, all of which are enforceable within Korean courts thanks to Article 6.1 of the South Korean Constitution, which grants international treaties the same power as domestic law. “The question is whether a judge or not will recognize it,” Wagner says.

Wagner has brought several cases to the UN on behalf of HIV+ foreigners or foreigners who didn’t agree to be tested for HIV. Some he’s won and some he’s lost, and some are still working their way through the courts. But in the meantime, he says nothing will really change until attitudes do.

“What I’d like to see is obviously more awareness,” Wagner says. “The immediate problem is the fact it’s like the ’80s [in America], and people are needlessly dying, people are afraid to get tested, so there are always late diagnoses and they don’t want to know.”

But he admits he alone will not change anything. “It needs to be Koreans who do this, not me.”

Among Koreans, Yeom continues to preach against homosexuality as the driver of HIV/AIDS, and the hospitals he helps oversee keep AIDS patients segregated from others. Son and the people at KNP+ try to raise awareness the best they can.

It could come from more people coming out of the closet, both as gay and as HIV+. Moon argues that in the United States, it took some time for LGBT people to gain equality in eyes of others and gain legal protection, Moon says, “but a big part of how that happened in such a short period of time was that individuals, people who were very conservative […] would have family members [who are LGBT], and they realized this is not a totally alien thing.”

In Korea, if more people learn that their neighbor, friend, or relative is HIV+ or LGBT, the change might come faster than we know.

Dave Hazzan is a Canadian freelance writer who has written extensively about Korean society and culture. He has been published in VICEKorea HeraldKorea Times, among many other out publications.

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