Feminism is a cause of South Korea’s rock-bottom birthrate. The gender-equality ministry should be dismantled. There’s no structural discrimination against women.
Sexist rhetoric like this dominated the campaign of Yoon Suk-yeol, the right-wing People Power Party (PPP) candidate who won the presidential election on March 9. Yoon’s victory was the culmination of an antifeminist backlash that has swept South Korea—a clear sign that the women’s movement’s modest, hard-won progress is under threat.
South Korea is the world’s 10th-largest economy and a cultural and tech powerhouse. It has produced global TV hits like Squid Game and pop superstars like BTS, and is home to Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker. But South Korea remains a deeply patriarchal country, with a dire record of women’s rights. For nearly three decades, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has reported that it has the largest gender pay gap among the developed economies. Sexual harassment, including spycam porn—the nonconsensual filming of women in dressing rooms and toilet stalls—is widespread.
In recent years, women have pushed back, mounting what was arguably the most powerful #MeToo movement in Asia. South Korean survivors and activists brought down many men accused of sexual misconduct, including a presidential contender. They marched for months to call for a crackdown on cyber-sex crimes. They successfully campaigned to legalize abortion. And a growing number of “no-marriage women” are refusing to become wives or give birth, defying expectations of self-sacrifice and caregiving.
But this remarkable movement has drawn the resentment of many young men, who say that they are now the victims of “reverse discrimination.” These so-called men’s rights activists believe that feminists are “mentally diseased” and follow an “antisocial ideology.” Nearly 80 percent of South Korean men in their 20s identify as victims of gender discrimination, one survey showed. Feminists have become an easy target for anger over joblessness and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.
Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old Harvard graduate, capitalized on this anger to advance his career and the cause of the Korean right. After three failed attempts to win a parliamentary seat, he was elected leader of the People Power Party last year. He has lambasted women for having a “groundless victim mentality” and dismissed measures to ease chronic underrepresentation of women in the public sector as special treatment. When a Seoul lawmaker bemoaned a spate of brutal killings of women by intimate partners, Lee compared her “incitement” to anti-Semitism and racism.
Lee has emboldened online trolls. During the Tokyo Olympics, a gold medal–winning archer was cyber-bullied for having short hair—a sign, some claimed, that she was a “man-hating” feminist. A mob cyber-attacked a suicide-prevention website for young women, who have died by suicide in high numbers throughout the pandemic; the men complained that it disregarded men’s lives. In a bizarre campaign, male activists forced major South Korean corporations and government agencies to apologize for using the image of a finger-pinching hand in advertisements, alleging that the gesture ridiculed men’s penis size.
It was against this backdrop that Lee embraced Yoon, a former chief prosecutor and political novice. In his campaign for president, Yoon won over young men’s rights activists by echoing their rallying cries. He stated that women who make false claims of sexual assault should be punished more harshly, and he made the dissolution of the gender equality ministry his trademark policy. Exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of male voters in their 20s voted for Yoon, close to the level of support among retirement-age men, the usual base of Korean conservatives.
To be fair, the election was about more than anti-feminism. The race was mired in claims of corruption and misbehavior, and many women found both major parties—the ruling Democratic Party, whose candidate was Lee Jae-myung, and Yoon’s opposition PPP—distasteful. The DP was widely condemned for having failed to limit spikes in housing prices. Many women were also reluctant to vote for the DP because of its leaders’ record of sexual misconduct. In recent years, three party heavyweights, including two presidential contenders, were either jailed or died by suicide after being accused of harassment or assault—and many party members relentlessly attacked the men’s victims.
Nevertheless, this election marked the first in South Korea for which anti-feminism was successfully weaponized. “Maybe this is how many American women felt watching the 2016 election unfold?” a Seoul office worker and sexual assault survivor in her 20s told me. Both Yoon and Lee Jun-seok have been compared to Trump.
Yoon will take office in May, and has already reiterated his promise to dismantle the gender equality ministry. This beleaguered “mini-ministry,” which accounts for just 0.2 percent of the central government’s budget, has championed the rights of women and helped many socially vulnerable groups: victims of sexual assault, unwed mothers, women who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese during World War II, immigrants, and children from low-income families. The ministry has also advocated for women in the workplace, especially those who were fired or forced to quit after giving birth, and single women hoping to live with partners without getting married. Dismantling the ministry is more than symbolic.
His other big promise, to go after women who lie about assault, is likely to chill the reporting of such crimes. Many sexual-assault victims in South Korea have faced criminal charges, including making a false complaint or defamation, for coming forward with their experiences. (Already, South Korea punishes false accusation more harshly than many other advanced nations. If convicted in South Korea, a person can face up to 10 years in prison. In the US the penalties max out at five years, and in the UK the prison sentence can only be as long as six months.)
Young women voted overwhelmingly for the DP in the end, leaving the PPP with a wafer-thin margin of 0.7 percent instead of the landslide that Yoon had expected. Within days after the election, the DP was flooded with over 100,000 new requests for membership—many from young women determined to change the DP from within and challenge the PPP in upcoming local elections. Young women also donated nearly $1 million the day after the election to support the left-wing Justice Party, which ran feminist candidate Shim Sang-jung, for president. Polling in single digits, Sim had no real chance of winning the election, and many of her female supporters, frightened by the prospect of Yoon taking power, found themselves voting for the DP. Thus, while many women are bracing for what one activist described to me as “a long, hard winter to come,” they are also fighting back against a politics “powered by discrimination and hate.”
One viral tweet encapsulated this new groundswell of determination: “I doubled my donations to human rights and women’s rights groups, and made new donations to children and animal rights groups, as the harshest times may be ahead,” an anonymous user wrote. “We will stand together more firmly than ever before. We will not be defeated by hate and division. And we will never, ever go back to the past.”