Despite glaring gender inequality in South Korea, anti-feminism sentiment is on the rise
Women’s empowerment in South Korea has lagged behind despite the country’s remarkable economic growth and democratisation over the previous few decades. For instance, in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 report, South Korea is ranked at 99th out of 146 countries. According to a report by the headhunting company Unicosearch, women make up 4.8% of executives in the top 100 companies, and only 19% of MPs, compared to 27% in the U.S. Congress, are women. The current government has come under fire for the overwhelming male composition of its cabinet.
The country’s gender disparity may now get worse under the conservative government, according to women’s rights organisations and opposition parties, who claim President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has benefited from anti-feminist backlash.
Experts say Yoon struck a chord with young male voters by promising to dismantle the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, arguing that discrimination is now an individual issue rather than an institutional one and that the ministry no longer serves a purpose.
As part of a larger organisational restructuring that is currently being debated by South Korean lawmakers, the Yoon administration presented proposals for a new Health Ministry department in October that would take over the responsibilities of the gender ministry.
The presidential election in March, which Yoon won by less than 1%, was the closest in South Korean history, and gender and feminism played an unprecedented role. Both Yoon and his primary rival, Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, used gender issues to win over young people, who have grown to be an essential swing group.
Yoon, a former prosecutor, claimed that feminism was to blame for the low birthrate in the country, declared that he would toughen up on those who make false charges of sexual offences, and refuted the idea that there was “institutional prejudice.”
Given this situation, one may be excused for wondering how a robust “anti-feminism” movement could exist in South Korea when there has been so little overall advancement for women. The base rate against which we compare can be used as an explanation.
To put it simply, even though the current state of affairs for women in South Korea is not ideal, it must be compared to South Korea 20 or 30 years ago. And in light of that, the state of affairs has dramatically and quickly improved.
South Korea experienced extremely anomalous sex ratios thirty years ago. The birth sex ratio in 1990 was 116.5 males for every 100 females. In patrilineal South Korean society, sons were strongly valued over daughters, which resulted in sex selection. By requiring children to be registered solely under the patrilineal line, with fewer rights for women, the patriarchal family registry system, known as Hoju, significantly enhanced the system that discriminates against women. Due to the system’s breach of the right to gender equality guaranteed by the constitution, it was finally repealed in 2005.
However, this comparatively quick advancement in women’s empowerment has not been without a price. In fact, it’s possible that its rapidity is what has triggered a fierce anti-feminism in society. Young, charismatic male leaders in the anti-feminist movement have urged their followers to punish women for defying social convention and taking the lead in Korean society instead of remaining in their place.
The outcome has been an increase in violence and harassment against women. For instance, with cameras (known in Korean as molka, short for spy cameras) found in the majority of public restrooms and even offices, women must now expect that they are being videotaped everywhere they go, and upskirting is a daily occurrence for women who commute.
The “Nth Room” incident, in which tapes of women being sexually assaulted and dehumanised were sold for money, was caused by the lack of severe punishments in these molka cases.
Today, violence against women is unapologetic. In one infamous recent case, an ex-colleague who was previously suspected of stalking and molka blackmailing the victim—a woman in her 20s—killed her in a subway station’s public restroom. Hyun-sook Kim, minister of gender equality and family, categorically denied that this was gender-based violence despite the fact that the incident sparked outrage.
The Ministry of Gender Equality’s termination has been delayed by the incoming president in response to the uproar.