Social Stigma: HIV/AIDS in South Korea

Jessica Lee

In 2012, there were 35.3 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)1 – and that number is increasing. While a part of the world is fighting to reduce the incidence rate, another is leaving these people to succumb to the disease under marginalization. It is difficult to imagine that a developed country is restricting care to these people, but this is exactly what South Korea is doing. South Korea is one of the countries still in what is called “AIDS denialism,” viewing this minority community with a critical eye. The increased stigmatization and discrimination is killing thousands of people in dire need of health care.

For two and a half months, I worked closely with two non-profit organizations in Korea, volunteering at the Salvation Army Public Health Department and interning at the Korea Federation for HIV/AIDS Prevention. These are two of just a handful of organizations in the country that offer services for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and other sexually transmitted infections, including free meals, bible study, laughter treatment, educational workshops and campaigns, and anonymous testing. However, these organizations struggle to fund their programs due to lack of support and sponsorship. With just a few staff members in an old building with many patients to tend to, the situation was grim.

I met Patient K when he had already been hospitalized for years due to a combination of AIDS, cerebropathy, and other health complications. In his late forties, he was unable to talk or move. Moreover, his parents both worked and were barely able to sustain the family and pay the hospital bills. The family depended on the hospital, but without warning, the hospital requested the patient to move out if the family could not pay an additional 50k KRW (about $45 USD) per month. This request was not made to patients with other illnesses – only those with AIDS.

The hospital showed other modes of discrimination towards AIDS patients. The nurses did not wash the patient’s hair nor cut his nails. The hospital room was moldy, and the doctors paid little attention to him. This was the situation for Patient K and other patients with AIDS in Sudong Yonsei Sanitarium Hospital, which had been previously the only government-issued hospital that offered long-term care for AIDS patients.2 It was difficult to imagine such atrocities until I personally visited Korea and witnessed the neglect of care and attention.

But the problems do not stop there. South Korea is the only country in the world where HIV is transmitted almost exclusively through sexual transmission.3 In Korea, IV drug users are rare, and sharing needles is equally uncommon, as syringes are readily available for purchase in pharmacies and stores. Blood transfusions are now more meticulously tested for any signs of the virus. Therefore, sexual contact is the leading cause of the spread, with a higher proportion among men, inferring a higher rate of men who have sex with men (MSM). Because South Korea still remains conservative due to deep cultural roots, the general public needs to improve in accepting the LGBTQ community.

Over the summer, I realized what PLWHA struggle with in order to maintain quality of life as much as possible. They are neglected by the public, and once it is revealed that they have HIV/AIDS and/or their sexual orientation, it is not uncommon for them to be fired from their workplace and abandoned by their family. Most live in small one-rooms that are big enough for one adult to lie down. It is difficult to find decently paying jobs due to their health status. Even under these situations, some hesitate to receive side dishes from these organizations on a weekly basis because of the risk of others in the same residential area finding out about their HIV status.

Only 0.015% of South Koreans are living with the disease,4 but this remains a serious public health issue. It is a preventable phenomenon, but circumstances in Korea do not allow for the right amount of support and effort. Society needs to realize the severity of the situation and to what extent it will be exacerbated if action is not taken. More of South Korea’s population should be educated about HIV/AIDS so that more funds can be directed towards fostering better treatment programs for PLWHA and stigmatization can be eliminated ultimately. No human being should be denied basic health care services based on their disease. Discarding even the public’s prejudice can be the first step in saving thousands of vulnerable people’s lives.


1. World Health Organization. Global Health Observatory (GHO). HIV/AIDS. Available at: Accessed on October 30, 2014.

2. Kim, Se-Jeong. AIDS patients with no place to receive care. The Korea Times. Available at: Accessed on Novebmer 14, 2014.

3. Cho, Byong-Hee. HIV/AIDS Policy in South Korea. International Studies in Education. Seoul National University. 2008.

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Transmission. Available at: Accessed on November 14, 2014.

5. Yoo, Audrey. S. Korea HIV patients battle AIDS, and bias. CBS News. Available at: Accessed on November 1, 2014.