As South Korea prepares for a contentious presidential election, Hong Hee-jin is one of many young women who believe that discrimination against women, if not blatant sexism, has taken over the country’s politics.
“Women are regarded as though they don’t have voting rights,” remarked a 27-year-old office worker in Seoul’s capital.
South Korean women have been making gradual but steady progress in the workplace for years, despite a deeply ingrained culture of male chauvinism and harassment. However, the razor-thin margins in this year’s presidential election, which will be decided on March 9, have shown the fragility of what has been earned.
Yoon Suk Yeol, the top conservative contender, and Lee Jae-myung, the top liberal candidate, are both over 55 and competing for what they regard as a “male” vote that is critical to success. They’ve shifted their attention to young males, who complain about gender equality rules and the loss of traditional advantages in a more competitive labor market.
“Politicians are opting for the easy way out,” Hong explained. “Instead of developing actual policies to address the challenges that young people face, they are stoking gender tensions by informing males in their twenties that their problems are caused by women receiving too many benefits.”
Tensions are visible on the streets. Hundreds of women marched in protest of the “misogynistic election.” In reaction, small but outspoken anti-feminist males have held protests.
As South Korea confronts with a rapidly aging population, a falling birth rate, mounting personal debt, a deteriorating job market, and severe inequalities, divisive gender politics has arisen. There’s also North Korea’s rising nuclear threat, as well as concerns about getting caught in the crossfire between the US and China.
Yoon’s pledge to dismantle the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which the candidate claims supports policies that are unjust to males, has sparked the most discussion during the campaign.
Yoon, 61, a former prosecutor general, has also promised harsher punishments for fake sexual crime complaints. Critics argue that this accounts for a minuscule percentage of rape allegations, and that the possibility of harsher punishment might deter victims from coming forward in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s subsequent male reaction.
Lee, 57, of the liberal ruling party, has taken a careful approach to gender issues while sparring with Yoon over the economy and North Korean policy.
Lee has been urged to appeal to more young men, whose support for conservative candidates in mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan may have resulted in a stunning double-defeat for the liberals.
Lee has linked gender conflicts to unemployment and believes that males should not be discriminated against. He stated that he intends to preserve the gender ministry, but under a new Korean name that does not include the term “women.”
Yoon’s campaign has been inspired by his party’s leader, Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old Harvard-educated “men’s rights” advocate who calls gender equality programs such as employment quotas for women “reverse discrimination.” Feminist politics, according to Lee, are “blowfish poison.”
During a presidential discussion on Monday, Yoon reiterated his claim that there are no structural hurdles to women’s achievement in South Korea, claiming that discrimination is now about “person versus individual.”
In an assessment that measures gender differences in jobs, education, health, and political representation, the World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 102 out of 156 countries.
According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has by far the greatest gender pay disparity among industrialized nations, at roughly 32 percent, and women remain severely underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and politics. The country’s record-low birth rate demonstrates how many women find it difficult to balance work and family life.
The elimination of the gender ministry will impair women’s rights and “take a toll on democracy,” according to Chung Hyun-back, a scholar who served as the gender equality minister under current liberal President Moon Jae-in from 2017 to 2018. It is also a vital government agency dedicated to assisting single parents, sexual assault survivors, and minority and migrant families.
Kang Ji-woo, a 36-year-old single mother who earlier struggled to find work in a strongly conservative community and now receives child care assistance from the gender ministry, is frustrated by the idea. In South Korea, unwed mothers are frequently coerced and stigmatized into having abortions or giving up their children for adoption.
“On policies geared at assisting the poor, there is no candidate worth believing,” she remarked.
After years of disarray following the 2017 ouster of the country’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, over a massive corruption scandal, South Korean conservatives are rallying around a Trump-like brand of divisive “identity politics” that speaks almost exclusively to men, according to Park Won-Ho, a Seoul National University politics professor.
Older conservative supporters considered Park Geun-dictator hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, as a hero who saved the country from the tragedy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Yoon is capitalizing on the dissatisfaction of males in their twenties and thirties who are struggling to find work, while also fretting about skyrocketing home prices and diminishing chances for marriage and motherhood. They are becoming increasingly aware of competition from women, who frequently outperform them in school and are more motivated to break free from traditional gender norms in order to progress professionally.
Women have begun to speak out more forcefully against a male-dominated corporate culture that exposes them to harassment, unequal pay and promotions, and frequently derails their careers after having children, even as many men cling to the belief that their female colleagues have it easier in the workplace — including being exempt from mandatory 18-month military service.
Hong Eun-pyo, a 39-year-old anti-feminist YouTube personality, defends men’s salary by claiming that they work longer hours or execute more challenging duties. “Women should remain working and not become pregnant if they want to attain the same level as their male contemporaries and be paid the same salaries,” he added.
Song Tae-woong, an office worker, claims that young men resent women’s rising concerns about society because they are concerned about a life path that appears to be more difficult than their dads’.
“Our parents’ generation, now in their 50s and 60s, married young and worked their way up,” he explained. “Today’s people are… tremendously restless.”
Some academics, like Chung, believe that politicians are exaggerating the gender concerns of certain middle-class, college-educated males who have grown radicalized online as they fight with women for a decreasing pool of respectable employment.
According to Park, a politics professor, recent polls reveal a stark political difference between more conservative young males and their more left-leaning female colleagues, not just on gender issues but also on the economic and national security. This suggests that conservatives are effectively rallying their young male followers to support larger objectives, such as stronger North Korean policies and policies that prioritize economic development over social expenditures. According to polls, younger women feel generally unrepresented.
Lee Ji-young, a teacher who rose to the top of her sector in the extremely competitive private tutoring industry, recalls years of verbal and physical sexual harassment from male colleagues who continuously questioned her competitiveness.
One of her coworkers informed her that Korean society was stable during the medieval period “because ladies were silent,” but that “women have devastated South Korea now,” Lee added.
When a male coworker tried to touch her rear, she stated she twisted his wrist.
“This isn’t how most women react,” Lee remarked. “I’ve seen people cry at home or abandon their jobs because they were frightened of being judged, both personally and professionally,” says the author.