As South Korea's population shrinks, same-sex couples say they can help

By Minwoo Park

SUWON, South Korea (Reuters) - South Koreans Kim Eun-ha and Park Cho-hyeon would like to get married and have children, a plan that fits in with government ambitions to boost the world's lowest fertility rate.

The catch is that same-sex unions remain illegal in South Korea, and doctors refuse to perform artificial insemination on women without a male partner, citing ethical guidelines.

"A lot of single people and lesbian couples around me want to have children. If the various types of families who can have children are accepted first, I think it will contribute a lot to the fertility rate," Kim Eun-ha told Reuters.

While campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage have succeeded in Taiwan and Thailand, there is no legal acknowledgement of LGBT partnerships in South Korea and many couples are forced move abroad if they want to get married or have a baby.

Every year, the LGBT community faces a lot of opposition to the annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival from conservative religious groups that have mounted fierce resistance to efforts to pass laws against discrimination.

Kim Ji-hak, who heads non-profit organization Diversity Korea, said the government should acknowledge diversity if it is serious about increasing the birthrate.

South Korea has spent billions of dollars to try to stop its population from shrinking, as concerns about career advancement and the financial cost of raising children drive many South Korean women to delay childbirth or not have children at all.

Despite these efforts, the population declined for a fourth straight year in 2023.

"If we become a society where people don't have to worry about healthcare, education, labour and ageing, everyone will want to have more children," Kim said.

There have been a few steps towards LGBT rights: last year, a court made a landmark ruling on national health coverage for a gay couple.

But doctors still refuse to perform artificial insemination for single women and same-sex couples due to guidelines set by the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 2022, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea recommended the guidelines to be revised, but nothing has yet changed.

For Kim Eun-ha and Park, who live together with their dog Whipping and also run a YouTube channel that aims to raise awareness about LGBT issues, the lack of recognition for LGBT unions is the biggest obstacle to boosting the birth rate.

The couple plan to go to Australia to get married - even though the South Korean government will not recognise their union - before thinking about how they can have children.

"I think the only way to start solving everything from raising children, healthcare to housing is to recognize marriage for same-sex couples. It's only when this form of love is acknowledged, everything else becomes possible," Kim Eun-ha said.

(Reporting by Minwoo Park and Heejung Jung; Additional Reporting by Jihyun Jeon; Writing by Hyunsu Yim; Editing by Ju-min Park and Miral Fahmy)