According to the World Economic Forum and United Nations reports, among the countries in the so-called “developed world”, South Korea is undoubtedly one of those with the worst situation regarding gender equality and women’s rights. Different statistics support this statement, such as the growing gender pay gap (more than 37% in 2019), and the 115th place out of 149 countries in the 2018 Gender Equality Report by the WEF. Women are relatively excluded from high-level positions in South Korean economy, as only 5% of members of boards in the corporate world are women. Moreover, even sexual crimes are not punished appropriately. Data from the last decade shows a 41% rate of release on probation and 30% of the cases concluded with just the imposition of a fine; only the remaining 28% of those found guilty (whose number, needless to say, is not equal to the total of all sexual crimes) was sent to prison. It has been noted by various analysts how misogyny in younger generations is driving the country towards an always worsening situation on the topic.
The phenomenon of collective misogyny that is affecting the country does not have a simple and straightforward explanation, and its root causes do not lie just in an ideological and conservative reaction to progressive gender equality in the whole world. Feminism is indeed associated with radicalism and misandry, and such equation constitutes the basis for various political positions, not last the one of newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol and the leader of his People Power Party, Lee Jun-seok.
Ideological and political causes
It has been argued that the strong capitalist and individualist ideology that characterizes current South Korean society, politics, and economy may be one of the main causes of such radicalization of the debate. Young South Korean men, that did not live through the historical struggles of older generations, live in a society in which the labour market and education are highly competitive and individualist, thus creating a new moral sensibility in which an extremized meritocratic perspective plays a central role. According to this view, the poorest layers of the population are to blame in an exclusive manner for their economic situation; applying the same reasoning to the gender pay gap, women are to blame for their lower income level, simply because they do not put as much effort in their careers as their male counterparts. Obviously, this view of the labour market is totally distorted and can easily be proven wrong. However, in a situation in which the political class itself exacerbates this worrying phenomenon, it is difficult to educate a large share of the population in order to create a more worthwhile debate on the topic. In this situation, young men tend to see women as threats because of the alleged preferential treatment that they receive. According to a local survey, almost 80% of young men feel discriminated against on a gender basis.
However, not even the capitalist and extremised meritocratic viewing can exhaust the explanation of the phenomenon. Even young men that do not present such a strong sensibility towards radical individualism display a certain fear of the South Korean feminist discourse, which is mostly associated with radicalism and misandry. A “rebound phenomenon” of extremist feminism and misandry is indeed present on some South Korean online platforms, such as websites “Megalia” and “Womand”. Of course, such niche debates are very limited and do not constitute a root cause of the characterizing South Korean misogyny. They are indeed a backlash, but also contribute to the always more exacerbation of the positions and the radicalization of the two opposing sides. Most famous South Korean feminist movements want to distance themselves from such positions, but their goal is more difficult when the campaign for gender equality finds itself to be jeopardized by such radical and minor views.
A raging phenomenon
The feminist battle, even when fought by celebrities, meet a decisive aversion from the South Korean public opinion, at least from the louder one, especially on the internet. Female singers, writers, actresses, etc. face a very likely online hate campaign in case of supporting feminist battle, even indirectly, mainly from the male public, but also from their agencies and male celebrities. One more sensible topic for young men is the still in place 18-months long mandatory military service that all men under 30 must complete. In such a competitive and capitalist society, losing one year and a half of their lives brings young men to feel resentful against women, that do not have to go through the same process. Moreover, and obviously, a very patriarchal society such as the South Korean one also negatively affects men, on whose shoulders weighs the burden of family income and economic capabilities, while women are often relegated to child-rearing.
One of the most worrying aspects of this anti-feminist phenomenon is the fact that the youngest generations of men are the most convinced on the topic. While progressive movements in other countries have to face generational battles with the majority of the elderly population being conservative, and thus having a certain hope for the near future when the youngest generations are inevitably going to have more decisional power, the South Korean case does not present such possibility for the future, as young generations are probably the most misogynist of all. This consideration is also linked with the political aspect of the topic. As last presidential elections have shown, none of the major political parties are exempt from misogyny. The “progressive” Democratic Party, which held the presidency in the former term, saw a high number of sexual scandals in its ranks. The conservative People Power Party, that eventually won the elections, made its anti-feminism one of the main themes of its campaign, with candidate Yoon promising to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Anti-feminism in modern South Korea is thus the result of various causes, but just as in other countries a battle against this phenomenon is impellent and cannot be postponed. However, none of the country’s political leaders can be seen as a defender of feminism and gender equality battles, and a large part of civil society openly expresses such feelings, while receiving group support. A radical change in South Korean patriarchal and strongly capitalist society is necessary on different levels and must include different issues, none of which can be addressed separately.
A cura di Francesco Di Nardo
Laura Bicker. Why misogyny is at the heart of South Korea’s presidential elections. BBC News, Seoul: 8 March 2022 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60643446)
Spencer Hines, Jay Song. How Feminism Became a Dirty Word in South Korea. The Diplomat: 30 July 2021 (https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/how-feminism-became-a-dirty-word-in-south-korea/)