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Monday, 20 December 2010

HIV Positive? South Korea Will Happily Deport You!

Flag of South KoreaImage via Wikipedia   
Source: change.org

By Corrie Hulse

While the international community focuses on the ongoing tension between the two Koreas, for many on this small peninsula, border tensions are the least of their worries - what truly concerns them is their next required health check and the HIV test that comes with it.

What happens to someone who tests positive? Does such a result lead to counseling and medication? Nope, it leads to immediate deportation to your native country.

Suffice it to say, South Korea is not the place to test positive.


In 2007, Bill 3356 was brought before the National Assembly in South Korea. This bill called for mandatory HIV testing for all foreigners wishing to work in South Korea (it has now been amended to apply only to English instructors on an 'E-2' Visa). Particularly disturbing is the presumed guilt of non-Koreans, with no sense of innocent until proven guilty. To give you an idea of the logic behind this piece of legislation, here is the purpose statement of the bill:
“Nowadays, the number of foreigners working in Korea is increasing, but a good many have previous convictions for drug and sexual crimes or carry infectious diseases.”
Statistics provided by the Korean government itself do not support these assertions. According to data provided by National Assembly Representative Lee Gun-hyeon in September 2009, the crime rate among foreign English teachers was 0.64 percent, which is five times less than the 3.5 percent average among Koreans, as reported by the Korean Institute of Criminology in 2007, and half the rate of other foreigners in Korea.

Prior to 2007, the E-2 Visa application simply required a college degree and a valid passport. Today, it includes a criminal background check, a health questionnaire and an in-country health check. The in-country health check includes chest x-rays, measurements, sight and hearing tests, drug tests and an HIV test. This process is required not only for those wishing to acquire their first visa, but also for those already residing in Korea who wish to renew their work visa.

According to UNAIDS, South Korea is one of 26 countries known to deport people based on their HIV status. While there was some movement this past January as South Korea joined the United States in ending its travel ban on those with HIV/AIDS. South Korea also signed two United Nations treaties banning discrimination based on one’s HIV status in 2001 and 2006. But the deportation policy remains, and there is still more progress to be made.

This policy is not only an affront to the human rights of those subject to it, but causes fear among foreigners and Koreans alike as to the fall out of a positive test. Surely the best way to spread HIV/AIDS is to not educate people about it, and then make them fearful of the social and legal consequences of having it.

In his petition to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Benjamin Wagner, a professor at Kyung Hee University Law School in Seoul, wrote:
“The E-2 Visa policy was never implemented to achieve any of its stated goals; rather, it was designed as a ‘show’ to pacify the Korean public by providing an illusion of protection through a discriminatory and extra-legal crackdown severely violating the human rights of non-citizen residents.”
Professor Wagner's petition supported high-scrutiny criminal background checks that would apply equally to all individuals working with children, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, as legitimate measures that would provide a high level of protection for young students. Unfortunately this petition was ignored, in favor of a race-based testing and criminal check system that exempted non-citizens who were ethnic Koreans.

According to Wagner, “Foreign English teachers provide the archetype of the ‘problematic foreigner.’” This archetype gives the Korean government a perfect scapegoat to put parents at ease.

The US government has done little to stand up for its citizens living in South Korea. In 2008, there was pandemonium over mad-cow disease as South Korean President Lee Myung Bak tried to reopen beef trade with the US. This story hit the news cycle in the US and was a major concern for US lawmakers as well as the Department of Agriculture. Then US Ambassador to Korea, Alexander Vershbow, while rightly acknowledging the Korean public’s fears of US beef, stressed that there was no “scientific justification” for a ban on US beef and said he “hope[d] that Koreans will begin to learn more about the science and about the facts of American beef.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Korean public’s fears of US citizens as an AIDS threat to children, the US Embassy has yet to offer any similar appeals to address these concerns. Apparently the US Embassy in Korea finds American cattle more worthy of defense than some 12,000 US citizens living and working as English teachers in the country.

Making the indifference of the US Embassy in Korea even more egregious is the fact that the current US Ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, was herself once an English teacher in the country. Thus, she ought to understand how saddening this policy is for those who love living and working in Korea.

Furthermore, she of all people has the experience and clout to push the Korean government (specifically the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education) to retract this policy. Why has she not spoken out in defense of US citizens in Korea? What is she waiting for?
  • Sign the petition below to call on Ambassador Stephens to take a stand for her citizens.
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