Most English teachers here in Gwangju consider the HIV and drug testing part of their required health check as a necessary nuisance. However, some remember, or are familiar with, the story of how the testing was implemented by the Korean Ministry of Justice and the legal challenges that followed. After being introduced as an annual requirement for visa and contract renewal in 2009, retesting was required each year until 2012 when, in response to a complaint filed with the CERD on behalf of an English teacher who lost her job in Ulsan, the government modified its policy to only require a test upon entry. The teacher, Lisa Griffin, is an Australian national whose teaching contract with the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education was terminated in 2009 when she refused to submit to the testing.
The issue made ripples in human rights circles again last May when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued its determination that testing policy constituted racial discrimination. Unfortunately (though perhaps predictably), the ruling has not inspired a change of heart from the Ministry of Justice. While testing continues, Benjamin Wagner, the human rights attorney who filed the case on Griffin’s behalf, is working on a case filed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on behalf of Andrea Vandom, another English teacher who lost her job at a university in Seoul after refusing to be tested.
South Korea’s ongoing fixation on foreigners as a public health threat masks a very real and looming epidemiologic reality: the HIV infection rate among Koreans is rising at an alarming rate, and the government has put very little effort into prevention initiatives to do anything about it. According to Korean Centers for Disease Control data, HIV incidence (in other words, new cases of HIV diagnosed each year) has been rising 13 percent on average each year since 2000, even as the overall global HIV rates decline. This is extraordinary for a country as medically advanced and culturally homogeneous as Korea, and many Korean epidemiologists predict that it will only get worse. A KCDC report from 2013 predicted that HIV rates would rise dramatically in the population in general, and among young adults in particular, in the next five years.
This government-sanctioned attitude of associating HIV with foreigners may be worsening the spread of the virus in Korea, as forcing immigrants to be tested for HIV sends the message that only foreigners are at risk for infection. It discourages Koreans from getting tested and those with HIV from seeking treatment, making it more likely that they will spread the virus. Many Koreans avoid HIV testing out of fear of prejudice, and HIV-positive Koreans are openly discriminated against by health care professionals who know better. Many hospitals abuse and neglect HIV patients or even refuse to treat them. At the upcoming World Human Rights Cities Forum here in Gwangju this July, I will present my own work on this issue and show that Korea’s HIV-related travel restrictions not only violate migrants’ human rights to confidentiality and informed consent to testing and the rights of persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to privacy, work, and medical care, but that they also deprive Korea’s own citizens of the right to health and accurate information on effective HIV prevention.
Gwangju has always been ahead of the curve on human rights. Every year that the government required English teachers to be tested, Gwangju was the only area that did not enforce the annual retesting requirement. If Gwangju truly wants to make itself into a human rights city and blaze a trail on human rights for the rest of the country, this issue is an ideal one on which to take a stand. Individual English teachers have been able to show the CERD ruling to their employers and work with local human rights organizations to be exempt from the testing requirement, so Gwangju can certainly use the ruling, and South Korea’s treaty obligations to it, to drop HIV and drug testing for all teachers. HIV testing should be confidential, voluntary, and free of stigma for both Koreans and foreigners. Gwangju can take the first step toward that vision, which upholds health and human rights for all.
Jessica Keralis lived and worked in Gwangju for nearly two years beginning in 2012. She is now a research epidemiologist and has worked on global health research and advocacy projects with APHA’s International Health Section for six years. All views expressed here are her own and not those of any employer.