South Korea’s Villainization of Feminism 

Photo Credit: Associated Press

By Jennifer Lee
Staff Writer

On April 26th, 2023, to celebrate 70 years of U.S.-South Korea relations, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with President Joe Biden at the White House to unveil the Washington Declaration, which focuses on strengthened cooperation and transparency between the two nations to deter nuclear aggression from North Korea. While Yoon has received much praise for his progressiveness in international relations, his iron-clad conservative campaign in South Korea has stirred up domestic outrage. 

South Korea is often praised for being one of the fastest-growing economies. It is constantly at the height of innovation, cultivates one of the world’s highest-educated labor forces among OECD countries, and attracts tourists with its amalgamation of diverse culture, food, and K-Pop. Although South Korea seemingly experiences an advanced society, it still battles to correct an ethically basic issue: gender inequality. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, South Korea placed 99th out of 146 countries on an index that examines gender disparities in politics, economy, education, and health. The country faces one of the most significant gender wage gaps at almost 31% when the OECD average is around 12%. Less than one out of five South Korean policymakers are women. Only 5% of corporate executive positions are held by women. And the number of feminist professors at Korean universities decreases with every passing year. 

In response to the severe gender imbalance, women began to strike back with protests and riots. The velocity of the events shot up tenfold with the presence of the #MeToo movement and the 2018 revolts against molkas, or spy cameras that were illegally installed in public restrooms and hotel rooms to capture voyeuristic images and videos. As expected from a conservative society that is so deeply ingrained in its traditions, these feminist groups experienced retaliation. However, no one expected the retaliation to be so direct.

Feminist groups on International Women’s Day in 2019.
Photo Credit: Jung Yeon-Je

Recently, mixed in with the cries for justice were different voices: “Out with man haters! Feminism is a mental illness!” Wherever women’s rights activists and advocates would be petitioning and picketing, swarms of young men would be marching right alongside. These men are part of “anti-feminist groups” who state it is actually the men who feel the most marginalized and threatened in South Korea. They argue that women who believe in abortion rights are “destroyers of families” and feminists are “female supremacists.” 

South Korean men taking to the streets, protesting against the “man-haters.
Photo Credit: Dang Dang We

Bae In Kyu, the head of the most active organization, “Man on Solidarity,” claimed they “don’t hate women” or “oppose elevating their rights.” But Bae insisted that feminists are a “social evil.” As per South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission, “women” and “feminists” are the most common targets for online bullying and hate speech, and “femi,” short for feminist, has become a derogatory term for anyone who petitions for women’s empowerment.

A well-known ally of the anti-feminist movement is Yoon Suk Yeol. Most of Yoon’s presidential campaign revolved around ideals from “men’s rights” activist and chairman of Yoon’s political party (the People Power Party) Lee Jun Seok. Lee described corporate hiring goals and adjacent gender equality policies as “reverse discrimination” and pinned the feminist movement as a scapegoat for all problems plaguing young male voters. Instead of coming up with solutions or constructive policies, both Yoon and Lee are fanning the gender conflict flame and feeding young men the implication that all their difficulties directly result from women receiving too many benefits. 

A sea of young men attending a campaign rally in support of Yoon Suk Yeol.
Photo Credit: Bloomberg

A key component of Yoon’s campaign was the promise to dismantle the country’s Gender Equality Ministry, triggering serious outcry among South Korean women and feminists. The ministry has proven to be a crucial tool in addressing gender discrimination with its commitment to helping single parents, sexual abuse and violence survivors, and families of minorities or migrants. Yoon claimed that the ministry treated men like “potential sex criminals,” the dissolution would actually be beneficial towards the target groups it helps, and that the modern woman no longer faces any substantial barriers to success.

As President, Yoon has openly blamed feminism for the nation’s recently low fertility rates, claimed that the female empowerment ideals have made heterosexual dating culture almost obsolete, and even vowed to implicate stricter punishments on those who make false sexual assault claims, which are extremely rare and can further discourage real victims from coming out in an already prudent society. As he would nonchalantly claim, it’s “just an old saying that women are treated unequally, and men are treated better.”

The rise of anti-feminist groups and the election of Yoon Seok Yul lit a fire under the people present at South Korea’s 2023 International Women’s Day Protest this past March. “Stop erasing women and gender equality!” they shouted while pumping their fists into the air. Activist Lee Hyo Rin from the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center stated, “the only way we can survive these difficult times is through more solidarity and by connecting with each other.” Other feminists and women’s rights activists would come to a similar conclusion as Lee: although this is a rough time for women, not just in South Korea, there is always power in numbers.

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