How feminism became a hot topic in South Korea’s presidential election

Waving signs and wearing white scarves reading “Vote for Women”, they accused presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol of trying to appeal to anti-feminists for support ahead of the election.

“You don’t deserve to be a presidential candidate, Yoon,” chanted the mostly female crowd. “Go away.”

The protest highlighted just how heated South Korea’s gender war has become ahead of the March 9 presidential vote, with the two leading candidates tackling the issue to win over young voters who are increasingly divided over the sexes.

Faced with a hypercompetitive labor market and soaring property prices, anti-feminists say the country’s attempt to tackle gender inequality has tilted too far in favor of women. Feminists, meanwhile, cite the country’s widespread sexual violence, entrenched gender expectations, and low representation of women on corporate boards and in politics as examples of how discrimination against women is still prevalent.

Polls show a growing proportion of young men are opposed to feminism – and conservative candidate and political novice Yoon is trying to win their support. He promises to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which he deems unfair to men, and to increase the penalty for false reports of sex crimes. CNN contacted Yoon’s office for comment on her gender policies, but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung of the incumbent Democratic Party tried to strike a more balanced tone. He says discrimination against men is wrong – an apparent nod to the views of anti-feminist men – but also promised to close the gender pay gap.

He says he will keep the Gender Ministry — but will change his Korean name to no longer include the word “women.” But in the final days of the election, he appears to have accepted he won’t win young men’s votes and is proactively courting feminist communities online.

In a statement to CNN, Lee’s office said it had created “numerous gender-related policies” for women and men, including a quota system allowing women to hold at least 30% of positions. high-ranking audiences, benefits for new mothers and expanded support. for paternity leave.

The heated election campaign has left women feeling that the real issues they face are being used to score political points. And some fear that if Yoon wins the March 9 election, gender divisions could widen further.

People cast their ballots in South Korea's early presidential election at a polling station in Seoul on March 4.

The rise of anti-feminists

Since the brutal murder of a young woman targeted because of her gender in 2016 in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district, South Korea has faced judgment over its attitude towards women.

Activists lobbied to tackle sexual harassment and widespread discrimination and found an ally in incumbent President Moon Jae-In, who vowed to “become a feminist president” before being elected in 2017.

But in the years since, some men say the needle has moved too far. Anti-feminists cite statistics showing that women are now attending university at a higher rate than men and claim that compulsory military service for men gives women an advantage in the job market. Some place South Korea’s demographic crisis, caused by declining birth rates, squarely at the feet of feminists.

While in other countries anti-feminists might be ignored by politicians, in South Korea these men have formed themselves into a powerful electoral bloc.

Last April, Moon’s Democratic Party lost municipal elections in Seoul and its second-largest city, Busan, as exit polls showed young men in their twenties had overwhelmingly shifted their vote to the conservative party. of people’s power.

And in May, Korean marketing and research firm Hankook Research said a survey of 3,000 adults found that over 77% of men in their 20s and over 73% of men in their 30s were “put off by feminists or feminism”.

“There is a feeling of exclusion among men,” said Park Se-hwan, a 36-year-old writer who identifies as an anti-feminist. “Now is the time for us to discuss the men in South Korea who, by comparison, have been largely ignored.” Park says he’s okay with gender equality, but says this sense of neglect has sparked “general objection to feminism” among young men.

Park Se-hwan identifies as an anti-feminist.

According to Youngmi Kim, a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Edinburgh, social polarization and a lack of job opportunities for young people have led men in their 20s and 30s to become more conservative.

Or, as Yun Ji-yeong, an associate professor of philosophy at National Changwon University, puts it, “Many people realize that (the country’s) scarce resources are very unevenly distributed.”

“When they look for the cause, they point the finger at the women in front of them.”

The fight of feminists

For women, the heated gender debate doesn’t just make them feel like a political punching bag — they say it’s also sticking to the real issues they face.

Only 15.6% of management and leadership positions are held by women, significantly lower than the 42% in the United States. Fewer than 20% of legislators are women, again well below most OECD countries. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), digital sex crimes are so widespread that they affect the quality of life of women and girls, and women continue to face sexism and pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards.
Feminist protesters during a demonstration in Seoul on February 27.

Yang Ji-hye, a youth rights activist, says many of the claims of the anti-feminist movement are not supported by statistics – and she thinks the way gender is addressed in elections is “absurd”.

“I’m sick of these anti-feminist policies – it upsets me to say how women are discriminated against, while at the same time they say there is reverse discrimination (against men ),” she said.

Writer Park Won-ik says people with extreme views on both sides are engaged in a “culture war”. He says it is difficult for others to voice their opinions without being threatened. “There’s no effort to uphold certain rules as good citizens or as civilized people, whether you’re a feminist or not,” he said.

According to Kim from the University of Edinburgh, Korea still has a “long way to go” in terms of gender equality.

Kim Ju-hee, who was at the protests, felt discriminated against because of her gender – she was told her appearance was part of her job as a nurse, and at home her loved ones are still expected to eat at a small table at the back of the house after ancestral rituals. She also feels frustrated with the way feminism has been used in elections.

Kim Ju-hee, a nurse, at a protest in central Seoul on February 27.

“In this election, feminism is not seen as an issue, but rather as a symbol,” said Kim, 27. “I was very angry that he was being used as if he was going to be thrown away afterwards.”

Yun of National Changwon University says if Yoon becomes president, she expects feminists to face an even greater challenge for equality.

“Given that the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is one of the most important promises, I think it will probably be implemented first as a tangible action,” said Yun.

“In this case, I fear that gender conflicts and women’s human rights will recede further.”

CNN’s Pallabi Munsi and Saeeun Park contributed to this report.

Jessica C. Bell