Expats moving to South Korea may not be sure of what to expect of day-to-day life and societal norms here. Read on to learn about diversity and inclusion in South Korea.
Accessibility in South Korea
South Korea is not especially easy to get around, especially outside the capital. Since 1998, buildings with more than 300 square metres of floor space are required to have accessibility ramps. Still, there are no requirements for smaller businesses to be wheelchair-accessible, and though sidewalks in urban areas are generally wide and flat, this is not true in the more rural parts of the country. Many restaurants and smaller businesses don't have ramps, so wheelchair users should check before visiting one.
Public transport in Seoul has improved a lot and is mostly wheelchair-accessible, though some challenges remain. The Seoul Metro is accessible, and 90 percent of stations have elevators, with stairway lifts available in the remaining stations. Subway cars are nearly flush with the platforms, so gap ramps are typically not necessary. Some 56 percent of Seoul city buses are lowered – double the national average. Taxis specifically for people with disabilities are also available in Seoul, though these are in high demand and should be booked well in advance.
LGBTQ+ in South Korea
LGBTQ+ rights are limited in South Korea – while homosexuality isn’t illegal, same-sex marriage doesn’t exist and gay couples are unable to adopt. There is generally less public support for LGTBQ+ rights than in other Asian countries. Nevertheless, the last decade has seen some growth in LGBTQ+ support in South Korea, especially among younger generations.
Some cities are more LGBTQ+ friendly than others. In Seoul, for instance, people speak of a gay scene “hiding in plain sight”. ‘Homo Hill’ in Itaewon is a hotspot for the international crowd, while LGBTQ+ locals favour Jongno.
Although Seoul’s gay pride parade was once banned, the event now occurs yearly. Anti-LGBTQ protestors are unfortunately a frequent feature at the event, but turnout is still good, with around 120,000 attendees a year.
Gender equality in South Korea
More women than average have tertiary qualifications in South Korea. Despite this, the country has the highest gender pay gap among OECD states. Nevertheless, Korea is making significant advancements in addressing gender disparities, with the increased enrolment of young women in higher education and the growth of women’s participation in the labour force.
South Korea raised its minimum wage by 5 percent in 2022 in an attempt to narrow the gender wage gap. Additionally, the introduction of landmark parental subsidies for both women and men is expected to encourage more fathers to take longer paternity leave. This would allow professional women to return to work sooner and mitigate the risk of further increasing the gender pay gap while on maternity leave.
Alongside the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, there are several organisations working together to advocate for women’s protection and elevation across society and in the workplace (see below).
Women in leadership in South Korea
Though South Korea is an established democracy that elected its first female president in 2013, Korean society holds some traditional views about the role of women in the home and workplace.
Only 6.3 percent of board members in South Korea's biggest companies were women in 2022, but this number will likely rise with the implementation of the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act, which effectively outlaws all-male boards for large corporations.
Mental health awareness in South Korea
Rates of mental illness, particularly depression, are high in South Korea, especially considering its status as a developed country. More than one third of Koreans experience mental illness at least once in their life.
The high rates of mental illness, as well as the severity of symptoms, can be partially attributed to the avoidance of mental health treatment. When left untreated, symptoms of mental illness tend to worsen over time. Only 7 to 10 percent of sufferers seek help for their symptoms.
Universal health insurance provided by the government covers mental health treatments, including therapy and medication. If expats wish to make use of local health insurance, they may require a referral from a doctor before insurance will fund specialist treatment. Expats with international insurance will most likely be able to skip this step and go directly to a psychiatrist, although it’s important to check individual policy details to ensure coverage.
Most psychiatrists in South Korea study in English, so expats can expect a good level of communication. Seoul has several private specialised counselling services aimed at expats that are run by professionals from abroad. Some expats find this easier than seeing a local psychiatrist.
Unconscious bias education in South Korea
The concept of unconscious bias is an implicit set of often stereotyped ideas an individual carries about groups of people different to themselves. These ideas are not purposefully adopted but rather develop subtly over time, and people tend to hold unconscious biases about groups they never or rarely come into contact with. As a result, they're often inaccurate and based on assumptions.
Unconscious bias can profoundly affect both personal and work conditions. In the workplace, unchecked bias undermines vital aspects of the company, with negative effects on employee performance, retention and recruitment. In a bid to create a better work environment, many companies are beginning to institute unconscious bias training. There are also a fair few online resources that can be used to improve self-awareness regarding bias.
Diversification of workforce in South Korea
South Korea is home to a little over 2 million foreigners, the majority of whom come from the US, Russia and Japan. People moving to South Korea are largely drawn by its generous salaries and reasonable cost of living.
Expats can expect to encounter a fairly diverse work environment in the large multinational companies based in Seoul. The offices of international firms buzz with a blend of languages, with staff being sourced from all over the world.
Studies show that diversification of the workplace is hugely beneficial to companies and employees alike. In recognition of this, many of South Korea’s largest companies are setting up diversity and inclusion programmes, ensuring that a wide variety of people is represented among employees.
Safety in South Korea
Although there are incidents of bag-snatching, pickpocketing and petty theft in larger cities such as Seoul and Busan, the crime rate in South Korea is low. As with any major city, there are some areas that are considered unsafe at certain times, even though for the most part cities such as Seoul are safer than large American cities.
Expats should follow normal safety precautions such as locking doors, being aware of personal belongings in crowded areas and tourist hotspots, avoiding walking alone at night through isolated areas, and only using reputable taxi companies.
Calendar initiatives in South Korea
4 February – World Cancer Day
March – TB Awareness Month
19 May – Global Accessibility Awareness Day
10 September – World Suicide Prevention Day
October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month
8 October –World Mental Health Day
14 November – World Diabetes Day
1 December – World AIDS Day