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South Korea's New Rules on HIV Cause Confusion

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The Korea Herald       January 2010

Adam Walsh and Matthew Lamers

Since Korea lifted its entry ban on HIV-positive foreigners, there has been speculation on the future of in-country testing.

On the one hand, lawmakers say protecting Koreans' health is the priority of the government, justifying HIV testing on foreign workers.  On the other hand, lawyers and civic groups say HIV testing foreign workers - but not Koreans for the same jobs - is discriminatory.

And within the government there has been confusion as to what the new rules mean.  The Ministry of Justice said HIV rules have not necessarily changed, while a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said Korea could still restrict reentry for HIV-positive individuals that have been deemed a threat to public health.

In an interview with Expat Living, Ministry of Justice spokesperson Ahn Gyu-seok said there have been no changes to the rules for testing foreigners for HIV that already reside within the country.

"Originally, we deported foreigners who tested positive for HIV.  And they were not allowed to visit Korea again.  But in light of the Jan. 1 announcement, the rule is just getting more flexible, meaning that the rule is not changed," the spokesperson said.  

"If foreigners who work here test positive, we would not immediately deport them. ...If foreigners who test positive could be treated in Korea, we will let them stay.  But as for foreigners who are judged by medical centers as highly dangerous we will impose restrictions on them."

As for how someone who is HIV-positive gets judged "dangerous," Ahn said that after the Ministry of Justice is informed of an individual's status, it is then up to the Ministry of Health to designate whether or not they are deemed a health threat, or "dangerous."

When reached for clarification, Park Il-hoon of the Ministry of Health said that a non-Korean could be deemed to be negatively influencing public health if he or she was found to be having sexual relations within Korea, which would open up the possibility of deportation and a ban from reentering Korea.

"If foreigners who test positive for HIV negatively influence public health, we will restrict them from revisiting Korea.  For example, in the case of HIV-positive foreigners having sexual relationships within Korea is one example of when we would restrict someone," said Park.  "If those foreigners do not influence public health, we, the Ministry of Health, will let them be treated with medication in Korea."

The Ministry of Health spokesperson could not say how that would apply to a Korean's non-Korean spouse.  

Meanwhile, as the country eliminated the HIV travel restriction, the National Assembly is set to debate a mass-expansion of HIV testing on foreign workers.  

Bill 3356 is scheduled to be debated in the Assembly in February.  The bill, written by Assemblyman Lee Sang-jun, if passed, will mandate HIV/AIDS testing of all foreigners applying for work visas in Korea.

"It's good that the government is becoming more tolerant towards foreigners ... but we think that the government should prioritize the safety of our citizens before any other matters, so we think it was wrong for the Ministry of Justice to alleviate their regulations on allowing HIV positive foreigners to enter Korea," Lee's spokesperson Seo Bo-kun told The Korea Herald.  

Seo further explained that part of the bill's intent is to ensure the safety of children taught by foreign English teachers.  "I think this is rather global trend.  For instance, in the United States when schools are recruiting teachers the qualifications are stricter than other companies.  They are especially cautious of their physical and health conditions."

Benjamin Wagner, a professor of law at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, said the apparent removal of HIV-entry restrictions is more of a PR move for Korea.  And since being chosen as the host for the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, Korea had come under criticism from non-governmental organizations due to the irony of hosting an international HIV conference while at the same time banning the entry of HIV-positive people.

"Korea's removal of the travel ban on foreigners with HIV is purely a symbolic gesture for the international community.  In Korea nothing has changed," said Wagner.  "In fact, the past year has seen an increase in mandatory in-country testing of foreign residents, with even foreign spouses of Korean nationals subject to compulsory tests in some cases.  Migrant workers continue to be tested."  

Commenting on the year ahead and where he wants global HIV attitudes and actions to proceed, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said, "I call for global freedom of movement for people living with HIV in 2010, the year when countries have committed to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.


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