By Jessica Keralis, special to Humanosphere
South Korea requires any foreigner coming into the country to teach English be tested for HIV, an apparent contradiction of the Asian nation’s claims in 2012 that it had ended such discriminatory practices. Meanwhile, HIV rates among South Koreans are increasing sharply.
Why test English teachers for HIV? The policy has its roots in a moral panic sparked by the arrest of Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian national and child sex predator, in 2007. Neil was arrested in Thailand, but the media reported that he was living and working in South Korea before he fled. While there was no evidence that he had committed sex crimes in Korea, nor that he was even HIV positive, the government began requiring annual HIV and drug tests for foreign English teachers.
But it’s not just English teachers. Those entering South Korea for a manual labor job or as an entertainer (a frequent euphemism for sex worker) are also screened for HIV.
Travel and immigration restrictions based on HIV status are nothing new. HIV discrimination and stigma remain entrenched in many parts of the world. Today, 35 countries (not counting South Korea) have some official form of travel or immigration restrictions linked to HIV status. The U.S. did not drop its own entry ban until 2010.
An English teacher from New Zealand challenged the South Korean policy. She refused to be tested and lost her job as a result. The teacher, Lisa Griffin, along with many other English teachers, challenged the requirement in South Korea’s Constitutional Court and lost. She then turned to the U.N. Committee to End Racial Discrimination in 2012, which finally ruled in her favor this year.
The U.N. committee recommended that the Korean government strike down the law and “counter any manifestations of xenophobia, through stereotyping or stigmatizing, of foreigners by public officials, the media and the public at large.”
More than six months later, the testing requirements remain in place, and there is no indication that the government will implement the U.N. committee’s recommendations. Though in 2012 after the complaint was filed with the U.N., Korea did drop its requirement for annual re-testing.
All the while, UNAIDS continues to recognize South Korea as a country with no HIV immigration restrictions.
With popular focus on HIV as a problem of outsiders, HIV rates among Koreans are rising at an alarming rate. 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, while the overall global trend declines. 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.
The South Korean government’s attempt to shift the focus of HIV onto foreigners may be worsening the spread of the virus. Testing immigrants for HIV promotes the idea that foreigners are a public health risk and implies that only migrants are at risk for infection. It discourages individuals at risk from getting tested and those with HIV from seeking treatment, making it more likely that they will spread the virus. This is already playing out in South Korea, where HIV’s association with foreigners has caused many Koreans to avoid HIV testing out of fear of prejudice. To make matters worse, the government has no active prevention programs to prevent the spread of HIV, or even educate people on how they can protect themselves.
It also makes life worse for patients. HIV-positive Koreans are openly discriminated against by health care professionals who know better, and many hospitals refuse to treat them.
South Korea is considered a low-burden country for HIV, so its absolute numbers do not typically put it on the radar for global HIV prevention efforts. But HIV prevention specialists in the country recognize that a storm is brewing. In a commentary on the state of government policy on HIV, Dr. Byonghee Cho of Seoul National University is not optimistic. “No significant measures to combat HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination have been attempted,” he laments. “Without a solid plan in place, the HIV/AIDS situation in South Korea is left in a foreboding, vulnerable place.”
Jessica Keralis is a research epidemiologist whose current work focuses on HIV prevention. She is an independent scholar affiliated with the Rapoport Center at the University of Texas School of Law and has worked on global health research and advocacy projects with APHA’s International Health Section for six years. Outside of her day job, her interests lie in health data, HIV, and places where health and human rights intersect. All views expressed here are her own and not those of any employer.