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Antifeminism in South Korea
The Future of the Gender Democracy

Illustration: A women and a man face each other, she holds a megaphone
Illustration: © Rosa Kammermeier

Gender Politics has emerged as the center of mainstream Korean politics. The media and politicians are calling out keywords such as ‘gender conflict’, ‘women and men in their twenties’, and the reboot and backlash of feminism. Feminism, once viewed as a concern of a few activists or elites, has now become a keyword, representing election promises and the political colors of mainstream parties.

By Bo-Myung Kim

The fact that anti-feminism has become widely acceptable by society and is used in mainstream politics in Europe is a worrying trend, that we in South Korea are observing too, dear Tobias. New draft laws and slogans of high-ranking politicians pose a threat to women's rights and further fuel the so-called "gender conflict". To approach the causes, one has to examine the specific political and historical situation of South Korea.

The Conservative Party winning candidate Yoon Suk-yeol targeted the votes of young men between the ages of 20 and 30 in South Korea's 2022 presidential election, and received their support with campaign promises such as the abolition of the “Ministry of Women and Family”, harsher penalties for defamation (for example, in the case of rape and sexual assault) and higher monthly wages for soldiers. The Women Employment Goal System that had been introduced to correct damages induced by gender inequalities and structural gender discrimination accumulated throughout history was now being called an 'unfair' act by male conservative politicians. They claimed that it would give preference to women and disrupt the market order while criticizing it as 'reverse discrimination' towards young men in their twenties, who are struggling to serve in compulsory military service while at the same time preparing for their entrance into a highly competitive work life. These politicians regard systemic discrimination as a non-existent illusion. Furthermore, the ruling party leader recently demanded the abolition of gender equality projects in which young women participate, arguing that feminism is a private activity that should be done with individual time and money, not public taxes.

The phenomenon of feminism and gender becoming hot issues in mainstream Korean politics has been repeated during the previous two presidential elections. In the 2017 presidential elections, candidate of the progressive party Moon Jae-in, had been elected, promising to become a “feminist president”. And in 2012, 'the first female president' Park Geun-hye won the election. Throughout these last three presidential elections, conservative and progressive parties all made use of the keywords 'women', 'gender', and 'feminism'. While in the past, political oppositions and confrontations in Korean society were formed around problems such as the Cold War, development, or democratization, now, conflicts between genders and generations are emerging as new keywords. Today's political mainstream in Korea can no longer avoid a response to the issue of 'gender' and at the same time, feminism finds itself in a position, where it has to face new concerns about its own broad political impact. Furthermore, the future of social and gender democracy in South Korea will likely be drawn amid the push and pull between feminism and the mainstream political system.

The hot issue of feminism

To understand how feminism could become such a hot political issue in South Korea today, one needs to go back to the feminist “uprising” of young women in 2015/2016. It started in the radical feminist online community ‘Megalia’ that was formed in response to the murder of a young woman near the Gangnam subway station in Seoul in May 2016, which was considered to be a misogynistic act by many. The practice of feminism by young women that started in digital spaces and popular cultural places, expanded into the public, and from the beginning demonstrated the potential and aspiration of a mass women's movement.

This popular growth of feminism however has paradoxically led to the reverse

The intuitive, playful and deviant form of ‘Megalia’s ‘Mirroring’-strategy, its resistance toward political correctness, and every ‘one woman (party)’ within the ‘women’s protest’ emphasized that feminism was not a difficult thing to understand, nor was it a high ideal but rather a resistive practice that all women could easily and naturally participate in. The connectivity and proliferation of digital media became the biggest weapon in the feminist uprising of young women and helped them to emerge as ‘digital crowds’. Unlike crowds of the past that met and united in workplaces, streets, and squares, today’s millennial feminists meet and unite through social media and digital networks. They seek to represent their interests and rightful share as women and citizens, without the specialness or excellence required by the rules of neoliberal competition and despite the dangers posed by the discrimination and hatred of the patriarchal system. They've created their own political visibility as subjects of the public sphere. This new wave of feminism has attracted the attention of the media, politics, and the public, while visualizing misogyny in pop culture, sexism in the labor market, and gender violence in digital and public spaces. It brought institutional changes such as the decriminalization of abortion; stricter punishment for illegal filming and digital sex crimes, and the establishment of a women's party.

(Anti)feminism in politics

This popular growth of feminism however has paradoxically led to the reverse result of anti-feminist policies and rhetoric rising to the masses, further mobilizing as a strategy of conservative politics. The sentiment of anti-feminists, formed around the male-centered community in the digital space, has started to define and criticize feminism and women's policies as ‘unfair’ and so-called ‘haters’ who break the market order and despise men without reason.

During the 2022 presidential elections, Lee Jun-seok, a young male politician and former representative of the largest conservative party, actively accepted and utilized anti-feminist sentiments and discourses and became the ambassador of ‘men in their twenties’. At that time, he showed a wavering relationship with the presidential candidate and current president, Yoon Suk-yeol. They resolved their disputes during the process of election, by bonding through the promise of the ‘Abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’. Similarly, solidarity between men of the younger and older generations has been shown to become stronger through commonly shared antifeminism sentiments. The conservative anti-feminist discourse denies structural inequality and expects women to lead successful lives both in the labor market and in their family lives through their own efforts. Seen from this viewpoint, feminism is nothing more than a nuisance that threatens the future of the country and society by creating problems that do not exist, causing conflict between men and women, as well as a decrease in birth rates.

The current ruling party declares the abolition of the “Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” and plans to create a “Ministry of Population and Family Affairs”. However, it is the result of failing to see that the reproductive crisis in today's Korean society is not just a matter of a decrease in birthrates, but a decrease in social life sustainability. Family formation without gender equality and reciprocity can no longer be a norm or reality. The dissatisfaction or anxiety among ‘men in their 20s’ due to the lack of ‘good’ jobs, and the burden of the conscription system imposed by the reality of a still divided country and by neoliberal competition and low growth, is not a problem caused by women or feminism. Still, conservative politics are calling this a battle between ‘women and men in their twenties’, in other words ‘gender conflict’. This distorted framing is hiding the reality that the phenomenon of ‘unfairness’ in education or employment is a problem of hierarchical conflict rather than gender conflict.

There is also a misunderstanding, that anxiety and crisis in life are not experienced by all young people in common. The notion that there are problems that are not ‘ours’, but caused by other people such as women, refugees, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, creates hatred towards minorities. Conservative politics, which have been armed with anti-communism and growth ideology in the past, are now discovering anti-feminism and anti-gender rhetoric as a new political strategy.

Not a conflict, but the voice of the young generation

Populism is not a problem of just right-wing politics. While feminism is popularizing, left-wing politics are also actively pushing the ‘fandomization’ of politics. Populism divides, simplifies, and antagonizes the boundaries between the perceived ‘us’ and ‘them’. A clearly drawn front covers up the complex contexts and structures of social problems and conflicts, and populist politics are immersed in the game of winning and losing votes in an exhausting situation of confrontation and division. The conflict between ‘women and men in their twenties’ is not just a product of a zero-sum game of the young generation that has to fight over a limited share; it rather shows the desire for change in the young generation, to enjoy life together in an equal and mutually beneficial relationship. Critical reading is necessary when it comes to the break from populist politics that produce a confronting structure between ‘women and men in their twenties’ without seeking new gender relationships and alternatives, and therefore creating gender conflicts, suggesting that taking one side is the only political choice.

As we can see structural causes of antifeminism run deep, and inequalities in society are one of the main features of susceptibility to populist currents and antifeminist ideas. Lydiette in Mexico is also experiencing these issues on a daily basis and in violent forms. Women's safety in Mexico is highly threatened by one of the highest femicide rates in the world, and feminist movements are labeled as oppositional by the government. I am curious to see how Lydiette observes the causes and at the same time possibilities of change from this reality.


About the Project

In the last few years, the topic of antifeminism has gained attention. But what is antifeminism and what are its manifestations?

Anti-feminist positions are diverse and reach from a critique of the scientific discussion of gender to a rejection of gender equality. They are often directed against the strengthening of female self-determination and support the idea of a binary gender identity with a classical division of gender roles.

Behind the various manifestations of antifeminism are usually sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Semitic views. These can lead to a threat to central values of an open and liberal society.

In an exchange of letters, our authors from Brazil, Germany, South Korea, India and Mexico describe the anti-feminist developments they observe in their countries. They present a local perspective on the question: “To what extent does antifeminism threaten our democracy?”