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On early Thursday morning of the 9th March 2022, the Republic of Korea announced the results of its recent presidential election and simultaneously disappointed its national feminists. Yoon Suk-yeol of the now-ruling People’s Power Party, won the presidential election by a margin of less than 1% (a difference of 263,000 votes). His victory forced the Democratic Party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, to step down. However, both candidates were seen as leading misogynistic campaigns, with Yoon generally considered as the “worse of the two evils”: abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (or its more direct translation as the Ministry of Women and Families) was central to his manifesto.
Yoon’s campaign targeted the demographic of young men in their 20s to 30s. Yoon’s campaign worker, Park Min Young, noted that “nearly 90% of men in their 20s are anti-feminist or don’t support feminism”. These young men resent feminism and view it as a form of reverse discrimination: a movement to take away their jobs and opportunities. here is a widespread association in South Korea that feminism is actually misandry, asentiment which has been echoed by Lee Jun-seok, the People’s Power Party chairman, who is also a “men’s rights advocate”. Lee notably calls feminist politics as “blowfish poison”.
Bearing this information about Yoon’s target demographic in mind, Park Min-young continues, “feminism has been going in the wrong direction… many men feel let down [and it is] necessary to pacify, convince, and to appease them first.” This borrows from the current waves of men who advocate “Me First” as a response to women’s “Me Too” campaign, a campaign which has become increasingly contentious due to the steady rise of sexual harassment and spy camera crimes. Nonetheless, a local newspaper survey in 2021 found that 79% of young men felt seriously discriminated against because of their gender.
Therefore, Yoon’s promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has gained great approval in the country’s anti-feminist climate. In comparison, the other candidate, Lee Jae-myung, did not propose any bold measures to appease the country’s misogynist attitudes, thus giving Yoon’s campaign a significant advantage. Set up in 2001 under President Kim Dae-jung, the Ministry was first established to promote gender equality, to promote women’s involvement in public life, as well as to combat domestic and sexual violence. It has always been a contentious organization in South Korean politics, as attitudes towards it changed with each passing government administration. Notably, President Lee Myung-bak sought to abolish it in 2008, but retracted and simply reduced its staff when he was met with multiple protests in 2010.
It seems that the political climate has now changed, with a survey in July 2021 reporting that 48% of its respondents supported the abolishment of the Ministry, with 61% of them men and 35% women. It is possible that the cause of this change is from media: a book by journalist Cheon Gwan-yul in collaboration with the data scientist Jeong Han-wool, “Men in 20s”, showed that young men rejected the assumption that they receive male privileges that typically comes with the patriarchal form of sexism, particularly gender roles and masochism. The book’s release and the subsequent traction it gained coincides with the period where social media started becoming more prevalent. These two events worked in tandem to reinforce the anti-feminist sentiment among young men, who were suddenly able to express and spread their misogynistic grievances and views in online anti-feminist forums. When Yoon justified abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family with the statement that “there is no systemic gender discrimination in South Korea,” claiming that the Ministry treated men like potential sex criminals”, young men felt represented. Yoon sympathized with young men and accused the Ministry of being “too focussed on women’s rights and promoting policies unfair to men, thus the Ministry is no longer necessary as the country should return to meritocracy”. He also promised to toughen punishments for false accusations of sexual violence.
The debate surrounding the Ministry has economic implications, as both presidential candidates framed the issue of gender tensions as being related to joblessness. They thus created the debate between South Korea’s economic woes and gender inequality. Particularly, both candidates sought to solve the problems of skyrocketing house prices, stagnant economic growth, and stubborn youth unemployment – worrying problems in Asia’s fourth largest economy. This is especially so given South Korea’s previous President Moon Jae-in’s failure to uphold his pledge to curb surging property prices, as well as his real estate corruption scandals.
Young men felt like they were the true victims of gender discrimination and were further disadvantaged by the economic consequences of the Ministry of Gender Equality’s policies, like incentivizing the private sector to hire more women. In a 2018 report by Ma Kyung-hee, a gender policy researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, wrote that young men saw women as “competitors to overcome”, who have unfair advantages in the workplace. 72% of approximately 30,000 men saw the mandatory male-only military draft as a form of gender-based discrimination; they felt like they were losing two years of freedom, and that women were free to pursue educational and economic opportunities whilst men served in the army. Furthermore, the patriarchal structure of South Korea gives men the extra societal burden of proving their economic capabilities while women were expected to be housewives. However, these fears are not empirically founded, as a 2017 OECD report found that women’s earnings are only 63% of men’s, which notes a large gender wage gap and inequality in South Korea.
With anti-feminist sentiment being brought to the forefront of South Korean politics, Yoon’s victory and proposed policies have been met with groups seeking to persuade Yoon to revise his manifesto. A coalition of 27 women’s groups held a massive press conference and accused Yoon of inciting hatred towards women and exacerbating the gender divide in South Korea. The now-opposition Democratic Party has reinvented itself as the “Party of Women”. From 9 March to 13 March 2022, the party appointed 39,000 new members; 72% of these members were women “alarmed by the sexism and hatred towards women in Yoon’s misogynistic policies”. These attempts reverberate in the words of Chung Hyun-bak, a scholar serving as the Minister for Gender Equality in 2017-18, who cautioned that “scrapping the Ministry of Gender Equality weakens women’s rights and takes a toll on democracy.” Hundreds of women marched in protest against the “election of misogyny”, but were met with small yet vocal anti-feminist men groups who staged rallies in response. Therefore, it is unclear in the current political climate whether feminist efforts will be taken into consideration, or will remain unheard.
By Jey Chung,
Jey Chung is a 2nd-year student in BSc Politics and International Relations, who simply writes whatever catches their eye!