The Korea Herald


Reality check: How diverse is Korea really? Disabilities and politics (3)

S. Korea has elected a total of 17 persons with disabilities to parliament, all but four through proportional representation

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 24, 2024 - 11:43

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As of 2022, individuals with disabilities make up 5.2 percent of South Korea's population. Using basic arithmetic, this percentage corresponds to approximately 15 seats in the country’s 300-member unicameral parliament.

In reality, just four seats are currently occupied by individuals with disabilities, constituting only 1.3 percent.

The first person with a disability to win a parliamentary seat as a constituency representative was Lee Chul-yong. In 1988, on the ticket of the liberal Party for Peace and Democracy, he won the election in a Seoul constituency and joined the 13th National Assembly. Before him, the Assembly building in Yeouido, Seoul, did not even have a single ramp.

Since Lee's groundbreaking entry into the legislature, South Korea has witnessed a succession of lawmakers with disabilities, totaling 17 as of January 2024.

The share of parliament seats held by persons with disabilities has fluctuated within a narrow range, with multiple instances of 0 percent -- the most recent being the 20th parliament (2016-2020) -- to a peak of 1.67 percent in the 18th parliament (2008-2012).

Of the total 17 representatives with disabilities, all but four were elected through the proportional representation system.

Among them, the most prominent figure in mainstream politics now is arguably the five-term Rep. Lee Sang-min, who uses a wheelchair. Recently, he garnered significant media attention by bolting out of the opposition Democratic Party and joining the ruling People Power Party.

Shim Jae-chul, a former five-term lawmaker who walks with a cane, attained the highest office among politicians with disabilities in Korean politics by serving as the vice speaker of The National Assembly during its previous 20th session.

Is South Korea really becoming more diverse? The Korea Herald offers a reality check by examining data on representation in the fields of politics, business and society according to gender, age, ability, sexual identity and nationality. A complete version of this series was printed in the Jan. 2 edition of The Korea Herald. – Ed.