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Anti-discrimination law again discussed, gains momentum

Ruling party hesitant to push, dimming chances for imminent passage

Nov. 9, 2021 - 14:35 By Ko Jun-tae
From right: Reps. Kwon In-sook, Lee Sang-min, Park Ju-min and Jang Hye-yeong pose for a photo last week after finishing a press conference demanding action to pass the anti-discrimination law. (Joint Press Corps)
Debate on enacting an anti-discrimination law is again gaining steam with the support of civic groups and left-wing lawmakers.

The South Korean Coalition for Anti-Discrimination Legislation on Monday protested in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, demanding that the bill be passed within this year’s parliamentary session. The group says its passage cannot be delayed any longer.

“Our demand is simply this: Pass the anti-discrimination law and uphold the virtue of equality in this society,” the coalition said in a statement. “Why does it have to be this difficult to declare this constitutional value?”

The coalition of 161 civic groups, formed for the purpose of enacting an anti-discrimination law, is engaged in a 500-kilometer march from Busan to Seoul. A team of marchers is set to reach Seoul on Wednesday.

Anti-discrimination bills have been proposed multiple times since 2007 but never passed the final stage due to opposition from the conservative bloc and religious groups. The recent bill, prohibiting discrimination in all areas, has gained stronger public support, increasing its likelihood of being enacted.

According to a report from the National Human Rights Commission published in June 2020, 88.5 percent of respondents agreed that there should be a law banning discrimination. A petition to the National Assembly also increased public awareness, gaining more than 100,000 signatures over a month.

The bill, as written and introduced in June, would ban direct and indirect discrimination based on gender, disability, medical history, age, origin, ethnicity, race, skin color, physical condition, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity. Violators would be liable for punitive damages.

South Korea’s central and local governments will be required to introduce corresponding laws and policies to prohibit discrimination if the bill is enacted as it is now.

Yet it is also possible that the bill will remain stalled this year, as the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which had its lawmakers propose the latest anti-discrimination bill in June, showed signs of hesitancy in pushing it to the final stage.

Wednesday is the deadline for the bill to be reviewed, but lawmakers can push back the date.

Lee Jae-myung, presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, said in a meeting with officials from the United Christian Churches of Korea that using the party’s majority in the parliament to pass the anti-discrimination law is “not desirable.”

The Democratic Party and its allies effectively control 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, meaning they can pass any bill if they have internal agreement.

“We can reach a social consensus on introducing the law with conversations and exchange,” Lee said Monday. “The case would be different if this was an imminent matter posing hazards to real lives, but this is more of setting a direction for where our society should go.”

It is viewed that Lee, like most other presidential candidates, prefers to distance himself from openly supporting the bill in fear of losing votes.

Rep. Sim Sang-jung, the minor left-wing Justice Party’s presidential nominee, criticized Lee’s comments, saying that fighting discrimination is an imminent task that has to be resolved to better protect people from unfair treatment and from violence.

“If an anti-discrimination law is not imminent, it is not imminent for Lee Jae-myung to become the president,” Sim said in a radio interview Tuesday. “If he wants to pass the anti-discrimination law later, he might as well become the president later. That’s the message I have for him.”

The main opposition People Power Party has consistently objected to the bill, saying it could constitute excessive regulation and threaten people’s basic rights.