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FOCUS March 2017 Volume 87

Hate Speech in South Korea

Joo-Young Lee

On 19 February 2017, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK)1 released the report entitled “The situation of hate speech2 and regulatory measures to combat hate speech.”3  The report states the prevalence of online and offline “hate speech” targeting women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer), persons with disabilities, as well as foreign migrants. It also mentions other people who are subjected to hate speech based on their origin, economic status or religion/beliefs such as those from Jeolla province, people living in poverty and Muslims. Hate speech has become a significant social problem in South Korea since around 2010 when an online community called Ilbe (Daily Best Repository) started causing concerns due to posts revealing or inciting disgust and hatred against women, people from Jeolla province (including the victims of the May 18 Uprising and their families), and people trying to advance democracy and peace. Evangelical Christians’ anti-LGBTQ speech has also become stronger, blocking any attempt at the national or municipal levels to institutionalize anti-discrimination measures, including those on sexual orientation and identity.

The NHRCK did a survey to clarify the situation of hate speech and identify regulatory measures to combat it. 1,014 individuals participated in an online survey about their perception of and experience with hate speech. Also, in-depth interviews with twenty individuals who have been subjected to hate speech were conducted with a view to understanding the likely effects of hate speech on people. LGBTQ people, persons with disabilities, foreign migrants, and women were chosen as the main respondent groups of the online survey on the basis of existing research or media reports about hate speech. This survey also included two-hundred six male respondents who did not belong to any of the groups in order to identify their perceptions about hate speech and counter-measures to it. 

The NHRCK research team used four categories of expression to analyze the situation, namely, 1) discriminatory harassment, 2) expressions either intending or implying discrimination and/or hatred, 3) public insults, contempt or threats, and 4) incitement to hatred. A common element in all four kinds of expression was identified: discrimination based on prohibited grounds, e.g., race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, and disability. However, while these categories are useful in identifying measures on countering the different types of hate speech, they do not necessarily coincide with how individuals or groups of individuals understand hate speech. Below are examples of content of hate speech either observed or experienced by the respondents.

Misogynistic (strongly  prejudiced against women) expressions include those blaming Korean women in general, such as “Kimchi-Nyeo (女)” (literally meaning Kimchi woman) and derogatory expressions regarding women’s appearance, age, ability or sexuality. Particularly, contemptuous expressions associating women with sexual organs or sexual activities are often accompanied by expressions implying sexual violence and have the effect of justifying and inciting discrimination and violence against women. Such expressions are likely to cause fear and anxiety about potential sexual violence among women. 

Hate speech targeted at LGBTQ people often contains adjectives like “dirty,”, “disgusting,” or “animal-like,” and thus portray sexual minorities as an “object” that should be avoided and/or rejected. Also, these expressions often associate LGBTQ with “disease,” “mental illness,” “perverts,” and “sin,” and promote the narrative that LGBTQ people spread diseases, destroy families, the church and the state, and the need to “fix” them. Extreme expressions include “ostracize them” or “kill them.” Such anti-LGBTQ expressions have the effect of being used to justify the denial of LGBTQ people’s existence and identity, or incite discrimination and violence against them.  

Hate speech directed at persons with disabilities often associates disability with “something creepy or smelly” and furthermore “something that needs to be erased.” Persons with disabilities who participate in social life are seen as nuisance to “us, the citizens” which tend to exclude them from being citizens of society. Persons with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to vilification because they are seen as dangerous and causing harm to society, which is often followed by arguments that they deserve restrictions on their rights and freedom, as well as isolation from society. 

Xenophobic expressions often describe a particular group of foreigners or migrants as “dirty,” “noisy,” and “smelly,” implying that they need to be avoided. Adjectives such as “uncivilized,” “ignorant,” “lazy” and “craving money” are also used to disdain and vilify them. Xenophobic speeches target foreign migrant workers, foreign women married to Koreans, children of international marriage, Muslim people and people with dark skin. Extreme forms of hate speech treat people from particular countries as potential “criminals” or “terrorists” and claim that they need to be controlled or expelled from the country for the protection of Korean people and the prevention of crime.  These forms of xenophobic expressions are in effect an incitement to hatred and discrimination. 

Online hate speech is found to have a chilling effect on the target groups’ participation in social life. More than half of the female, persons with disabilities, and sexual minority respondents stated that their experience with hate speech discouraged them from uploading posts or leaving comments online, and also stopped them from visiting an online community where they were exposed to hate speech. A high percentage of target groups4 responded that they fear being vilified based on their identity, i.e., being a woman, a sexual minority, a person with a disability, or a foreign migrant.

Respondents in all groups, including men who do not belong to any of the minority groups, were positive to regulations on hate speech, among the different modes of regulation they were asked to select (multiple choice). Regulation by an anti-discrimination body is the most preferred way of countering hate speech by all groups. Regulation by intermediaries comes as second preferred counter-measure to online hate speech. Although criminalizing hate speech was the least preferred mode of regulation, the rate of positive responses among respondents exceeded 60 percent.

As part of the research team, I wrote a chapter on international standards on hate speech and relevant legislations from other countries. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) require the state-parties to prohibit incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence on the grounds of race, ethnicity and nationality. Provisions on non-discrimination and equality, as well as equal protection of the law, in major international human rights treaties mandate the state-parties to take appropriate measures to counter other forms of hate speech that do not amount to incitement to hatred. In reviewing the periodic reports of state-parties, the treaty monitoring bodies have included recommendations on hate speech in their Concluding Observations. Countries have adopted different approaches to address hate speech. The U.S. regulates only discriminatory harassment at work through anti-discrimination laws. Member-states of the European Union (EU) criminalize incitement to hatred relating to the prohibited grounds of discrimination, in most cases, not only on race, ethnicity and nationality, but also on sexual orientation and identity, as well as religion. EU countries are required to have anti-discrimination laws (human rights laws), if they had not done so, which mostly have provisions on discriminatory harassment. Canada regulates incitement to hatred through criminal law, and by anti-discrimination laws (human rights laws) in most provinces. Human rights laws in most of the Canadian provinces regulate not only discriminatory harassment but also expressions that expose or tend to expose hatred to any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground.

Incidents and court cases of hate speech directed at Korean residents in Japan have been reported in South Korea. Yasuko Morooka’s book on hate speech was translated into Korean. While looking into legislation on hate speech in other countries, I had a chance to read the Osaka City Ordinance Against Hate Speech (2016) as well as the law on elimination of hate speech (2016).5 The lack of a penalty clause and specific provision on budget for education and consultation measures both in the law and in the Osaka City Ordinance attracted criticism about their effectiveness in deterring hate speech and providing remedies to victims. At the same time, it is important to note that the law and the ordinance, at the very least, send a clear message to the public that hate speech is by no means allowed. Considering the lack of legislation against hate speech in South Korea, I consider the legislative efforts in Japan a clear step forward in responding to hate speech and racial discrimination. During my research visit to Osaka in February 2017, I learned about the formation of a counter movement at the grassroots level that effectively pressed the Japanese Diet and Osaka City Council to pass the legislations against hate speech. It was also impressive to learn about the empowerment of victims in countering hate speech and the decisions of local governments (e.g., Kawasaki city government) and courts (e.g., Yokohama district court) that put restrictions on public gatherings or demonstrations of hate groups. While trying to utilize the existing legislation to deter hate speech and protect minority groups, the counter movement is preparing the next steps, including proposing 

an enactment of anti-racial discrimination law. While the situation of hate speech, including its main target groups, in Japan is rather different from that in South Korea, the counter movement in Japan gives Korean civil society an inspiration on how to inform civil society of the issues and form a collective voice, “No to hate speech.” 

What should be an appropriate response to hate speech and the role of the NHRCK in this? The NHRCK stated that it would consider suggestions by the research team and prepare appropriate measures to prevent the spread of hate speech by consulting with relevant experts and civil society groups. While the definition of hate speech must be revisited for regulation purposes, hate speech should be prohibited by law, consistent with international human rights law. Considering the severity of the harm caused by hate speech and the purpose of regulation, different modes of regulation can be devised. The first step might be to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and include provisions on hate speech. It is never enough to emphasize the importance of human rights education to empower individuals to counter prejudice and discrimination against the minorities entrenched in society. 

Joo-Young Lee, PhD, is an Advisor at the Human Rights Center, Seoul National University.6

For further information, please contact: Joo-Young Lee, Phone:  +82 2 880 2426, e-mail:

1 The National Human Rights Commission of Korea was established in 2001 as a national advocacy institution for human rights protection; a result of the Korean human rights movements’ long-held campaign for an independent and effective national human rights institution. Its main mandate includes: Developing human rights policies through conducting human rights research and issuing policy recommendations; Investigating discrimination and human rights violation cases and providing access to remedies; Promoting human rights education and raising public awareness of human rights; and Promoting and monitoring national implementation of international human rights treaties.
2 嫌惡表現 in South Korea is a general term for various kinds of verbal and written expressions that insult, ridicule, contempt, threaten, or attack a person or particular groups of people. The usage of this term may not be the same as hate speech. However, hate speech is also a loose concept requiring separate legal definition for regulatory purposes and therefore 嫌惡表現 is translated into hate speech in this article.
3 This is the report on the research conducted by a group of academics and practitioners in the field of human rights: Sung Soo Hong [홍성수], Jeong-Hae Kim [김정혜], Jin-Seok Noh [노진석], Minhee Ryu [류민희], Seung-Hyun Lee [이승현], Seung-Mi Cho [조승미], and the author.  
4 84.7 percent of sexual minorities, 70.5 percent of persons with disability, 63.9 percent of women, 52.3 percent of foreign migrants.
5 Act on the Promotion of Efforts to Eliminate Unfair Discriminatory Speech and Behavior against Persons Originating from Outside Japan
6 The Seoul National University Human Rights Center was established in 2012. Its functions include raising the awareness of human rights and gender equality on campus and providing a hub for human rights study and research.
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