South Korea was lauded by the United Nations in January for lifting its travel ban on people with HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and leprosy, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heaping praise on President Lee Myung-bak 'for his country's leadership in ending restrictions towards people living with HIV that have no public health benefit. '
Only a few months after the revision took effect, however, some AIDS advocates and lawyers here now say that high praise the country earned might have just been a bit of overreaction on the part of the UN Secretary General.
'I believe the South Korean government applies a double standard to this issue,' Chang Suh-yeon, a lawyer at the non- profit Korean Public Interest Lawyers' Group Gong-gam, told Xinhua.
'The government does say to the international community that it has eased entry and travel restrictions for HIV and AIDS carriers. But in reality, provisions mandating HIV testing for them are still in place. They have merely modified internal guidelines, rather than legislation, and even these guidelines that the government claims were revised haven't been made public yet,' she said.
South Korea previously demanded mandatory HIV testing for migrant workers and foreigners seeking employment here as English teachers. If found HIV-positive, they were denied entry into South Korea or faced deportation, despite denunciations of the policy by local activists and foreigners as blatantly discriminatory.
The recent changes to the internal guidelines, reportedly made at the urge of Ban, himself a South Korean native, state that future decisions to be made on deportation of foreigners with HIV will be based on advice of the local health authorities.
Critics have dismissed the move as a titular modification that does not address fundamental human rights concerns.
With the public deeply biased against HIV and AIDS carriers due to inadequate public education on the issue, singling out certain groups of foreigners has only stirred xenophobic fears of South Korea, a highly nationalistic country, they have said.
South Korea's justice ministry and the health ministry declined to comment, citing sensitivity of the issue.
The issue was also cast in a new light following China's decision earlier this week to lift the two-decade-old ban on entry for foreigners with HIV and AIDS, just days before the opening of the Shanghai World Expo on May 1.
Ban Ki-moon welcomed China's move and urged other countries to follow suit, calling such bans 'punitive policies and practices.' Statistics show 110 countries and regions around the world currently have no ban on entry for HIV and AIDS carriers.
'The Secretary-General should not applaud the recent move by the South Korean government. He should instead push for revocation of the laws that restrict entry of HIV-positive foreigners,' a joint statement by 19 civic groups and two left-leaning opposition parties demanded.