South Korea's gender politics getting ugly

South Korea's gender politics getting ugly

Gender is not the only issue in this week's election in South Korea, but it's the hot-button topic. It's not clear if there was ever a successful sexual revolution in the country, but the counter-revolution is definitely doing well. The 'F-word' (feminism) is being used a lot by both major parties, and not in a good way.

The conservative People Power Party (PPP), unsurprisingly, deplores the activism of young feminists. Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol claims that "gender discrimination no longer exists", and blames feminism for South Korea's very low birth rate: "Some say feminism has been politicised to make it emotionally hard for men and women to date."

What's surprising is that the liberal Democratic Party's candidate, Lee Jae-myung, sort of agrees. He's a bit shame-faced about it, but he has expressed his "distaste" for feminism and recently shared a post online that said the "madness" of feminism had to be stopped.

This is a long way from the politics of outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who is also a member of the Democratic Party. When Moon took office five years ago, he declared himself the country's first "feminist president", raised the minimum wage, cut the maximum work-week from 68 to 52 hours and did all the things you'd expect from a former human rights lawyer.

Lee is not necessarily more conservative than Moon (he's promising a universal minimum wage), but on the gender issue he has had to retreat. Most of Korean politics is unchanged -- the southeast and older people vote conservative, the southwest and younger people vote liberal, etc. -- but on this one issue there has been an anti-feminist landslide.

In by-elections last April for the mayors of South Korea's biggest cities, a staggering 72.5% of young men in their 20s in Seoul voted for the PPP. The second city, Busan, was not far behind, and even among men in their 30s the conservatives were far ahead of their usual score. There is undeniably a huge male backlash going on, and even the Democrats can't ignore it.

Their calculation is as simple as it is ugly. Young women who normally vote for the Democrats have nowhere else to go politically: there's no other liberal-inclined party with a chance of winning office. So they can take the female vote for granted, and try to win the young men back with carefully modulated anti-feminist dog-whistles.

But what has happened to the young men? South Korea is still a strongly patriarchal society, but the young of both sexes were much more open to changing all that than the older generations -- young women more so than young men, for obvious reasons, but there was certainly not the yawning gap between the sexes that has opened up today.

Perhaps part of the reason was the country's first woman president, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017, found guilty on corruption charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. That wasn't misogyny -- she really did disgrace her office -- but it may have influenced some young men's views of women with power. (She was pardoned last December.)

There is also a general shortage of suitable jobs for the generation now coming out of universities and colleges, 70% of whom have a post-secondary qualification. The Ministry of Gender Equality's activities gave young men who didn't get good jobs a reason to blame feminism.

It backed initiatives like startup loans for female entrepreneurs, incentives to businesses to promote gender balance on their boards and a pledge to allocate 30% of cabinet posts to women. All that was long overdue, actually, but it fed the fire of misogyny.

And above all, the feminist movement itself took a wrong turn in about 2015. Radical online feminist sites adopted a strategy called "mirroring", in which they took the worst kind of derogatory anti-female abuse and reshaped it as anti-male abuse, e.g. hannam-choong (male pest) for a man and gisaengchoong (parasite) for a male foetus.

There were probably never more than a couple hundred women involved in the mirroring campaign, and the leading radical feminist website Megalia was closed down after only two years. The "Four No's" slogan survives (no dating, no sex, no marriage, no child-rearing) as a lifestyle choice, but has limited appeal (4,000 self-proclaimed adherents).

What the radical campaign did, however, was to give misogynists, and the patriarchy in general, enough ammunition to wage a ruthless and largely successful anti-feminist, even anti-female campaign in the country's media. That's why 75% of urban young men vote for the PPP -- and why many Korean feminists have now taken to calling themselves "equalists" instead.

Gwynne Dyer

Independent journalist

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book is 'Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.

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