Story by: Matthew Lamers, Photos by: James Little
Following is Groove Korea’s editorial for the April 2013 issue. — Ed.
Mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for foreign teachers in Korea was borne out of a panic brought on by the arrest of noted pedophile Christopher Paul Neil in Thailand in 2007. Resentment of native-speaking English teachers had already been simmering here since a “sexy costume party” attracted the indignation of netizens in 2005. Neil’s arrest only exacerbated the distress among certain foreign-fearing segments of the Korean population, and the media was only too happy to feast on the panic; after all, Neil had taught English in this country before his arrest.
“Incidents surrounding native-speaking instructors are never-ending,” decried broadcaster MBC on Oct. 17, 2007, when news broke of Neil’s case. The next day, the Seoul Sinmun spread worries that Korea would become “a paradise for criminals from English-speaking nations,” while the Hankook Ilbo asserted that “society now knows just how deep the pitfalls of native-speaking teachers are.” The JoongAng Ilbo joined the fray, declaring that “the insecurity of school parents concerning native-speaker teachers and instructors is growing by the day. … There must be even more crimes that have yet to be revealed,” it added, calling on authorities to “hurry and formulate measures.”
Under pressure to act, the Ministry of Justice wasted no time: Just 10 days after broadcaster KBS connected Neil to Korea, the MOJ sent out a press release which outlined strict measures against native speakers. It was aptly titled: “Illegal native-speaker conversation instructors will no longer be tolerated.”
Soon after, the ministry declared that foreign teachers would have to undergo medical tests for HIV/AIDS and drugs at designated hospitals within Korea. The measures were hailed by some segments of the population, including the Citizens’ Group for Upright English Education — formerly known as the Anti-English Spectrum — which was invited by the government to help craft the new measures.
This same group proclaimed on its website: “(HIV) infected foreigners are indiscriminately spreading the virus,” as well as molesting children, raping Korean women and consuming narcotics.
That was the backdrop under which foreigners were first forced to submit HIV/AIDS tests in Korea. Later, the country reversed course on the tests for foreigners — all except E-2 visa holders.
Mandatory HIV/AIDS testing of foreigners in Korea should be overturned. They were introduced in a climate of fear and did not address legitimate concerns. Korean children were never at risk of being infected with HIV/AIDS by their foreign instructors.
Since only foreign teachers are required to submit HIV/AIDS tests, and not their Korean colleagues, the tests are discriminatory. Even more damning is that they detract attention from where the disease is spreading the fastest — in the general Korean population — and in doing so, misdirect resources to where they are of little help.
No evidence has been provided to back up the claim that mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for one very small segment of the population, some 22,000 foreign teachers, has a net benefit for the good of the society’s overall public health.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon agrees, and has urged his country to lift the requirement. Human Rights Watch and the human rights law foundation GongGam have stood up against Korea’s teacher testing. So, too, has the AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific. Most recently, (Korean) Lawyers for a Democratic Society announced plans to approach the United Nations, saying that “The Korean government has yet to explain the link between classroom teaching and HIV infection, require that Korean nationals with the same employment undergo testing, or provide any official data to support a link between sex crimes and E-2 visa holders.”
Change could be coming, and this time Korea can’t ignore it. Last July, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) got involved by accepting a claim on the grounds that Korea could be in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) — a legally binding treaty to which it is a signatory.
That month, the CERD gave the Korean government three months to reply to the claim. Nine months later, the government has remained silent. We, and the U.N., are still waiting.
It’s time for the government of the Republic of Korea to do the right thing and cease the mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for foreign teachers, restore the teachers’ human rights and undertake in earnest a campaign to make up lost ground in educating the general public regarding effective measures to prevent HIV/AIDS.