JThe identity of South Korea’s next leader will be determined this week by the economy, property prices and incomes, but the road to the presidential Blue House will also be littered with the wreckage of gender politics. country toxic.
Moon Jae-in’s successor, who is limited by law to a single five-year term, will not be able to ignore the fallout from a culture war-defined campaign waged in the world’s 10th largest economy.
On the one hand, a feminist movement that led the Me Too movement in Asia; on the other, young men whose resistance to the modest achievements of South Korean women has been exploited by the two main candidates.
In 2018, women took to the streets in record numbers to call on the government to act against an epidemic of molcha — the use of spy cameras to covertly film women, often in public restrooms — and helped bring down several public figures, including a presidential candidate, for sexual misconduct.
A year later, they helped overturn a decades-old abortion ban and shed light on the darkest recesses of a culture entrenched in male chauvinism, unequal pay and the hope that their career will end when they have children.
Despite the worldwide success of its pop music and television series, South Korea continues to perform poorly in international comparisons of women’s rights.
The World Economic Forum 2021 Global gender gap report it ranks 102nd out of 156 countries in an index that examines employment, education, health and political representation.
South Korea has by far the largest gender pay gap among OECD countries, at around 32%, while women make up just over 19% of deputies in the National Assembly. Only 5.2% of Korean conglomerate board members are women, and experts say the country’s record birth rate proves how difficult it is for its women to juggle career and family life.
The women responded by defying social norms, ranging from refusing to wear bras and publicly destroying their makeup collections, to promising never to marry or have children or, in some cases, to die. have sex with men.
Five years after its first female president, Park Geun-hye, was tried for corruption, South Korea’s election campaign has highlighted the anti-feminist backlash.
Online ‘men’s rights’ groups have denounced hiring quotas, while calls to scrap the Department for Gender Equality and Family – established in 2001 – have been seized on by the frontrunner.
The anti-feminist movement’s list of grievances includes the important subject of exemptions from military service, but often finds expression in vicious personal attacks on prominent women. Among them is An San, the three-time Olympic gold medalist in archery, who was abused at the Tokyo 2020 Games last summer simply because he had short hair.
Last year, South Korea’s biggest convenience store pulled adverts for sausages after a so-called men’s rights group complained that a promotional image – a commonly used hand gesture to indicate something small – had previously been used by a feminist group to exploit men’s anxiety about the penis. Cut.
The contagion of misogyny spilled over into the country’s politics late last year, when Cho Dong-youn, a military specialist, was forced to resign just three days after being named co-chair of the country’s election committee. ruling Democratic Party.
Cho, a Harvard graduate with successful military and college careers behind her, quit after a YouTube channel and broadcaster questioned her suitability for the job. His crime: having had a child out of wedlock during his first marriage.
As the campaign enters its final stages, conservative People Power party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol and his ruling Democratic Party rival Lee Jae-myung have been accused of pandering to sexism to win the votes of voters. young men who consider the advancement of women. as a threat to their financial security, in a context of sluggish labor market and rising cost of living.
Many resent having to do 18 months of military service, a requirement for all able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28, while women are exempt. Hong Eun-pyo, who runs an anti-feminist YouTube channel, tried to justify the gender pay gap, insisting that men work longer hours and do harder jobs. “Yes [women] want to reach the same level as their male counterparts and earn the same salary, they must continue to work and not get pregnant,” he said.
Yoon, a former attorney general, has accused the Department of Gender Equality of treating men as “potential sex criminals” and vowed to introduce tougher penalties for false allegations of sexual assault – a move that , campaigners say, will deter even more women from coming forward.
In addition, removing the gender equality ministry could weaken women’s rights and “harm democracy”, said Chung Hyun-back, an academic who served as gender equality minister under Moon.
Yoon, 61, is believed to be heavily influenced by his party’s chairman, Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old Harvard graduate and ‘men’s rights’ advocate who has criticized hiring targets for women and others policies favorable to women as “reverse”. discrimination,” and describes feminist politics as “pufferfish poison.”
Even Lee, the potential liberal successor to self-proclaimed feminist Moon, said he opposes “discrimination” against men and canceled an interview with a media outlet because of his supposed feminist leanings. Although he opposes Yoon’s plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, he wants to drop the word “women” from its official title in Korean.
Over the weekend, Yoon had established a small lead over Lee, after Ahn Cheol-soo, a minor party candidate, withdrew from the race and threw his support behind the People Power candidate. According to a Realmeter poll released Wednesday, 46.3% of respondents said they would vote for Yoon, including 43.1% for Lee.
While the two favorites are doing everything they can to avoid offending young male voters, the women say the election has thrust South Korea back into the dark ages. “We are treated like we don’t even have the right to vote,” said Hong Hee-jin, a 27-year-old office worker in Seoul.
“Politicians choose the easy way. Instead of offering real policies to solve the problems facing young people, they stoke gender conflict, telling men in their twenties that their difficulties are all due to women receiving too many allowances.
Agencies provided reports