A South Korean court delivered a landmark ruling on Tuesday, Feb. 21 recognizing the rights of a same-sex couple for the first time, with activists hailing the verdict as a major victory for LGBTQ+ rights in the country.
The case—which will now go to the Supreme Court—was brought by a gay couple, So Seong-wook and Kim Yong-min, who live together and held a wedding ceremony in 2019.
It had no legal validity, however, as South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage.
In 2021, So sued the National Health Insurance Service because it terminated benefits for his partner—whom he had registered as a dependent—after discovering they were a gay couple.
A lower court ruled in favor of the NHIS last year but in a significant turnaround, the High Court in Seoul overturned that decision on Tuesday, effectively ordering the insurance provider to resume benefits to So's partner as a dependent.
"We are delighted. It is not only our victory but also a victory for many same-sex couples and LGBTQ families in Korea," the couple said after the ruling, according to their lawyer Park Han-hee.
The court ruled that the NHIS did not provide "substantiating rational reasons" for treating same-sex unions differently from common-law marriages, a copy of the verdict provided to AFP by Park showed.
The NHIS grants spousal coverage benefits to common-law partners.
"Anyone can be a minority and being a minority simply means different from the majority, not being wrong or incorrect," the ruling said.
"It is acknowledged that the discriminatory practice seen in this case violates the principle of equality."
The NHIS told AFP it will appeal.
"This ruling is significant as the first decision legally recognizing same-sex couples to be made by a court at any level in South Korea," Jang Boram of Amnesty International said in a statement.
Though South Korea still has a "long way to end discrimination... this ruling offers hope that prejudice can be overcome."
While the country does not recognise same-sex marriages, gay relationships are not criminalized. LGBTQ+ people tend to live largely under the radar.
Activists have long emphasized the need for legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A much-discussed anti-discrimination law has languished in the South Korean parliament for years, due to a lack of consensus among MPs. (AFP)