A New Zealander who lost her teaching job in South Korea after refusing to take a HIV test is suing for damages after the country rejected a recommendation by an international watchdog on racial discrimination that she deserved compensation.
In a case that has dragged on for a decade, Lisa Griffin is seeking one year's lost wages of 24 million won ($31,513) because her contract was not renewed in 2009 after she refused to be tested, believing it discriminated against and stigmatised foreigners.
She tested negative for HIV under prevailing visa regulations before she started working in South Korea in 2008, but just months later she was told by a metropolitan education office to get tested again if she wanted to continue working at her junior school in the southeastern city of Ulsan.
"I was disappointed when I had to leave," said Griffin, who now works in the United States. "I really liked my school, my colleagues and the students, and I was good at my job. And I was angry that it all happened because of someone else's ignorance and prejudice."
The first hearing was set to take place at a Seoul court today.
Since 2009, Griffin has mounted unsuccessful challenges to the testing policy at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) and the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board, and filed a complaint with the UN's International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
In 2015, CERD found South Korea had discriminated against Griffin and that its HIV tests violated the "right to work without distinction to race, colour, national or ethnic origin".
CERD also ruled that Griffin should receive "compensation for the moral and material damages she suffered", a finding subsequently echoed by South Korea's own NHRCK.
"The lawsuit is simply a result of the Republic of Korea's refusal to follow the order of the UN, which found that I'm entitled to the year's salary I lost when they fired me for not taking a discriminatory test," Griffin said.
"I'm sure they've spent more money trying to defend their position over the last 10 years. And in that time, the HIV rate in South Korea has steadily risen. Surely that money could've been better spent on education and outreach programmes. That disgusts me."
The South Korean government has rejected her compensation claim, arguing, among other things, that the HIV testing was legal and proportionate, and that the statute of limitations had already expired.
South Korea introduced criminal background checks and tests for HIV and illicit drug use for foreign English teachers in 2007, amid heightened public anxiety about the behaviour of foreign educators in the country.
The policy was introduced after the arrest in Thailand of Christopher Paul Neil, a convicted child sex abuser who had previously taught English in South Korea, and a flurry of negative media coverage about sex between foreign men and Korean women.
If nothing else, South Korea shouldn't get to stand on the world stage and pat themselves on the back for being a leader in human rights while quietly violating them with impunity.
Korean nationals and ethnic Korean non-nationals - who qualify for special visas as "overseas Koreans" - were not subjected to the same screening when taking up teaching jobs.
The South Korean government justified the policy as a response to "social problems" caused by foreign teachers found taking drugs and committing other crimes.
In 2017, South Korea's Ministry of Justice announced it had abolished HIV testing as a visa requirement for foreign teachers, but local education offices around the country have continued to demand the tests as a condition of employment.
"They're [Korean educational authorities ] sticking with the same misguided approach that features a racial animus toward non-Koreans as morally problematic and is counterproductive to fight against the spread of HIV in Korea," said Ben Wagner, a US lawyer who is representing Griffin.
"Disturbingly, there's a willingness in South Korea to put aside human rights commitments when they don't merely boost the country's international reputation and advance ethnic national interests."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said it had abolished HIV testing for visas following the NHRCK's recommendation and referred questions about continuing testing at schools to local education offices.
People living with HIV face heavy stigma and prejudice in South Korea, according to campaigners, as infection is often associated with promiscuity, the LGBT community and drug use.
Korean people living with HIV regularly get denied basic health care in hospitals, lose jobs.
A 2005 report by the NHRCK found that people with HIV/Aids took their own lives at 10 times the rate of the general population.
South Korea recorded more than 16,000 cases of HIV infection in 2017. Since 2013, about 1,000 new cases have been recorded each year. More than 90 per cent of those cases involved men in their 20s and 30s, with sexual contact the most common form of transmission.
Sini-Petriina Klasto, a researcher who works with people living with HIV at the Korean Youth PLHIV Community R in Seoul, said stigma runs deep and is not limited to foreigners teaching English.
"Korean people living with HIV regularly get denied basic health care in hospitals, lose jobs and, if they happen to be men, face continuous questioning about the reasons why they have not completed the compulsory two-year military service," she said.
Griffin said she hoped her case would help reduce prejudice against foreigners and HIV sufferers alike in South Korea.
"If nothing else, South Korea shouldn't get to stand on the world stage and pat themselves on the back for being a leader in human rights while quietly violating them with impunity," she said.
- South China Morning Post