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South Korea's supreme court rules on legal transgender recognition


South Korea has been a democracy for more than three decades. Now, despite this, some minorities, including sexual minorities, are still battling for basic rights. From Seoul, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on a small but important legal victory for the country's transgender population.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: South Korea's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that transgender people cannot be denied the right to have their legal sex status changed solely on the grounds that they have children who are minors. The ruling was in response to a 2019 case of a woman whose bid to change her legal gender status was denied by a family court and an appellate court because she had underage children.

Kim Kyeoul was the head of the Seoul-based civic group Transgender Liberation Front.

KIM KYEOUL: (Through interpreter) I can't say the ruling is perfect. But the judges' opinions made me think that the court is at least aware of the difficulties that transgender people experience.

KUHN: The court's ruling applies only to single transgender parents with children who are minors, not those who are married with children. Kim also points out that South Korea has no law on legal gender recognition, and the decision is often left to the discretion of court judges. The ruling, though, says transgender people have the right to have their gender identities legally recognized. It's part of their constitutionally guaranteed right to pursue happiness. The ruling adds that a legal change of sex status is just a piece of paper. It doesn't fundamentally change parents' relationship with their children.

TOM RAINEY-SMITH: It also suggested that by allowing legal gender recognition, it can lead to a more stable family life.

KUHN: Tom Rainey-Smith is a gender rights campaigner with Amnesty International Korea. He says his group has called on South Korean authorities to drop abusive requirements for legal gender recognition.

RAINEY-SMITH: When an individual is considering applying for legal gender recognition, you have to consider the fact that you may undergo forced sterilization. You may be forced to undergo surgery you do not want.

KUHN: Kim Kyeoul notes that South Korea has highly regarded national health insurance, but it doesn't pay for sex reassignment surgery or related medical care. Kim says it can be hard for transgender people to come up with that money themselves.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Because their legal gender doesn't match with their perceived gender, they find it hard to get decent jobs. So we need an anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on appearance.

KUHN: Civil society has pushed for an anti-discrimination law for more than a decade, but conservative politicians and religious groups have successfully opposed the law's passage. Kim Kyeoul says that while many obstacles remain, the ruling gives her hope that South Korea is making slow but steady progress.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.