Faced with a looming demographic crisis, South Korea plans to expand the legal definition of family, but same-sex couples will not be included.
Kim Ju-won and Park Sun-min were running errands at a shopping plaza during one of the rare occasions that the two homebodies leave their apartment. The women have lived together for five-years along with six rescue cats in Bucheon, a city just outside the capital.
Since first meeting through a fan club for their favorite South Korean celebrity, the couple has been selective about to whom they disclose their partnership.
“We can’t be one-hundred percent open about our relationship to everyone,” said 36-year-old Park, who adds she worries about prejudice toward the LGBTQ community. “My parents still think Ju-won and I are just really good friends.” ‘
Kim, 30, says her family is more accepting. What’s most disappointing, she explains, is her country’s legal discrimination toward couples like them.
“I’ve started thinking about my future, like getting married and having kids, but these aspirations are all limited because we don’t have the right to have these things,” she said.
South Korea bans same-sex marriage and regulations make it very difficult for unwed partners to adopt children. And there are no laws that protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination.
Kim says she’d at least like to see the recognition of domestic partnerships, which she hopes could make same-sex couples eligible for many of the rights and financial incentives currently offered to only married men and women.
But a new government plan to redefine what constitutes a family in South Korea would make that unlikely.
Last week, Seoul’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced it will propose changes to civil and welfare regulations so that single parents and unmarried, cohabitating partners can become legal families.
A ministry official tells VOA News that the reform would only apply to heterosexual couples.
“There hasn’t been any discussion nor even a consideration about same-sex couples,” the official, who was not authorized to speak with the media and asked for anonymity, wrote in an email.
Some observers say the government’s “heteronormative” notion of family makes LGBTQ partners invisible in the legal domain.
“They do exist, even though they're in the shadow,” Grace Chung, a professor in the Department of Family Studies at Seoul National University, said. “Same-sex couples raise children together, but they can’t get legal protection, they're not recognized.”
The expansion of protection and benefits to non-traditional families is Seoul’s latest attempt to address concerns that makes parenthood unappealing to many young South Koreans.
Surveys consistently show that couples avoid starting families largely due to the cost of raising children, in particular the price of education.
Last year, the country’s population of about 52 million shrank as the number of deaths surpassed births for the first time- a decline of nearly 21-thousand people, according to official statistics.
Marriage is also on a downward trend, government data shows.
The government is launching a task force to prevent the nation from falling-off what is called a “demographic cliff”- a period of low economic activity caused by a shortage of workers and consumers.
South Korea has had the world’s lowest fertility rate since 2018 and is expected to become a “super-aged society” by 2025 when 20-percent of the population will be 65-years of age or older.
Authorities have tried to encourage a baby boom through financial incentives, such as housing loans to newlyweds. Next year the government will give cash hand-outs of about $2,000 to expecting parents and will increase childcare stipends.
Chung says she doesn’t expect these initiatives to make any difference.
“There are no good solutions,” Chung said. “The statistics clearly show that birthrate isn't increasing, even with all the government policies that encourage married couples to have kids or to have more kids.”
By excluding same-sex partners from a broadened concept of family, the government is closing the door on more potential parents. Chung adds.
For Park Sun-min and her partner Kim Ju-won, the denial of recognition also means they might not be able to support one another when they most need to.
“If she’s sick, I want to be able to visit her at the hospital, to be recognized as her family,” said Kim.
“We consider each other life partners,” Park adds. “That’s why we want to live together and be treated the same as straight couples.”