South Korean election: women’s rights the biggest loser
Yoon Suk-yeol became South Korea’s president-elect after winning the March election by an extremely narrow margin. He triumphed by pitching his election campaign squarely at disaffected young men, conferring legitimacy on once-fringe myths that moderate advances towards gender equality are responsible for the struggles many young men currently face in the labour market. The reality is that South Korea’s women still experience deep-rooted economic and social exclusion, and Yoon’s proposed policies – such as longer working hours, lower minimum wages and the abolition of the gender equality ministry – will likely deepen this. His win will also boost the confidence of the anti-rights camp.
The result couldn’t have been tighter: in South Korea’s March presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol prevailed over Lee Jae-myung by a margin of just 0.73 per cent. This was the country’s closest-ever presidential race. The result, after a vicious campaign of mud-slinging, could have dramatic repercussions – not least for Korean women.
The right makes a comeback
The election marked a defeat for the ruling Democratic Party, the more progressive of the country’s two dominant parties, with the winning People Power Party experiencing a change of fortune that until recently seemed unlikely. Candidate Lee’s predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, won easily in 2017 following the impeachment and dismissal of right-wing President Park Geun-hye in response to widespread protests. A landslide win for the Democratic Party in the 2020 legislative election further suggested the county’s right-wing politicians were in disarray. 2022 marks their unexpected revival.
There were many big issues on voters’ minds that could help account for this switch, including the economic impacts of the pandemic, which have exacerbated highly visible income inequality and increased household debt. There is persistent youth unemployment and housing costs have soared, particularly in the capital, Seoul: the cost of an apartment almost doubled during President Moon’s term. Corruption has remained a persistent problem.
The economic plans of the two main candidates offered different prescriptions for these ills. Lee is an exponent of universal basic income; Yoon has talked about cutting the minimum wage and removing limits on working hours. Lee wanted to invest in public housing; Yoon favours a private sector-led approach. Yoon also promises to take a tougher stance on North Korea than the Democratic Party. He plans to reverse Moon’s policy of phasing out the country’s nuclear power stations.
But the election campaign often focused on an entirely different subject: the role of women.
Fierce backlash to feminism
South Korea saw a renewed burgeoning of feminist activism in 2018, when the country had its MeToo moment following revelations of high-profile sexual harassment. Women started to speak out, defying a culture that encourages victim-shaming and victim-blaming, enabling widespread impunity. In 2018, women marched in their thousands against the pervasive scourge of spycam crime, in which illicit images of women are traded on porn sites.
This movement brought acknowledgement from the Moon administration of the need to do more to advance gender equality. Among the tangible changes introduced was the decriminalisation of abortion in January 2021, following a 2019 Constitutional Court ruling. Abortion had been illegal in almost all circumstances since 1953.
All over the world, whenever the women’s rights movement makes even modest gains, backlash follows, and in South Korea the reaction has been fierce. The country’s falling birth rate has been seized on by conservative religious groups who seek the return of what they characterise as traditional family roles, which assign women the duty to reproduce and raise families. The same conservative religious backlash has come against moves to recognise LGBTQI+ rights.
All over the world, whenever the women’s rights movement makes even modest gains, backlash follows, and in South Korea the reaction has been fierce.
So-called ‘men’s rights’ groups have sprung up, initially online but quickly making the leap into real-world violence and abuse. Women politicians have sadly become accustomed to a barrage of online hate speech. Women have been harassed in public for not conforming to outdated stereotypes of femininity – including merely for having short hair. When young archer An San represented her country in the most exemplary manner possible – by winning three gold medals in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics – even she was criticised for having short hair, something that made her, in the eyes of those for whom the word is a slur, a feminist.
How this climate of conservatism can work to hold women back was demonstrated last December, when Cho Dong-youn was forced to resign only three days after being appointed co-chair of the Democratic Party’s election committee. She was attacked for having a child out of marriage. In a sign of the campaign to come, what started as a hostile report on a YouTube channel was picked up on and amplified by the People Power Party.
Winner profits from fanning the flames
The anti-rights backlash is claiming that, as women have become more assertive, men are now discriminated against in the labour market. The Yoon campaign pitched itself squarely at those who believe this myth, speaking to disaffected young men who have found in the rising feminist movement a scapegoat for their economic anger.
Yoon denied the existence of systematic gender discrimination and blamed the low birth rate on feminism. He pledged to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family, accusing it of treating men like ‘potential sex criminals’. He promised to increase punishments for the offence of making a false claim of sexual assault, a move that can only deepen impunity by making it harder for women to report real crimes.
It worked. An opinion poll showed that over half of people agreed with the call to scrap the gender equality ministry. Yoon’s polling figures increased by over six per cent after he promised to abolish it. Election-day exit polls showed that 59 per cent of men in their 20s and 53 per cent of men in their 30s voted for Yoon.
Against Yoon’s Trumpian tone, Lee positioned as more moderate, but still evidently saw the need to engage on Yoon’s chosen battleground. He promised to reform rather than abolish the gender equality ministry and drop the word ‘women’ from its Korean-language title. He announced he was opposed to ‘discrimination against men’.
Many women saw a campaign that just didn’t speak to them. Little wonder that, while many female voters chose Lee as the lesser of two evils, hoping to avert a Yoon win, others backed self-identified feminist Sim Sang-jung, who placed a distant third on 2.3 per cent of the vote: far more than Yoon’s winning margin. But Lee, candidate of a party also dogged by high-profile sexual harassment allegations, had not offered enough to win the votes of those feminists who supported Sim.
A reality of exclusion
South Korea’s reality remains far distant from the laughable notion that men are being discriminated against. Only 19 per cent of South Korea’s members of parliament are women. The country has the highest gender wage gap of any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member. It ranks 102nd out of 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, and even lower, at 123rd, when it comes to economic participation and opportunity. It has one of the highest rates of female homicide victims in the world.
The country’s feminist movement is only just getting going and is yet to make any great strides in challenging the economic exclusion of women. It isn’t the reason young people – both men and women – are struggling to make economic headway. But Yoon’s policies, when he takes office in May, can only further serve to push women down the economic pecking order, since women will be disproportionately affected by measures like minimum wage reductions and longer working hours.
The size of the backlash indicates the strength of the social forces that have long conspired to keep women on the sidelines. And while women’s rights groups will work to respond, the backlash can only get worse now that what started as a fringe online movement has been injected into the political mainstream. After a polarising election in which many women felt unrepresented, Yoon should move to heal divisions. But how can he hope to control an anti-feminist movement he has legitimised and emboldened?
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President-elect Yoon should commit to dialogue with civil society groups campaigning for women’s rights and gender equality.
South Korean civil society should work together to combat disinformation and hate speech from anti-rights groups.
The South Korean women’s rights movement should reach out to its peers around the world to learn from their experiences and adopt effective tactics to resist the anti-rights backlash.
Cover photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images