South Korean women fight back as disillusioned young men seek to cancel feminism
- Tens of thousands of disenfranchised men, including popular politicians, are joining calls to get rid of gender equality efforts with claims of ‘reverse discrimination’
- As women activists fight against the growing wave of intolerance, they have to contend with harassment, cyberbullying, stalking and physical assault over their views
In August, a South Korean man dressed as the Joker live-streamed himself harassing activists who had gathered in Daejeon city to protest against advertisers profiting from YouTube videos that promoted hatred against women.
His words were chilling: “I heard that there were f*****g feminists here; I’m going to murder them all.”
According to Lee Hyo-rin, from the women’s rights group Haeil, no passers-by stepped in as the man chased the activists down the street.
“He clung to me, insulted me and threatened me,” Lee said. “As I was running away, he chased me and got so close that he even put his microphone on my mouth. No one was stopping him.”
The man was Bae Ing-gyu, a notorious YouTuber and a central figure of a South Korean antifeminist movement known as “New Men on Solidarity”.
The community, which has more than 300,000 members, is known for its violent campaigns – and its misogynist ideology is openly backed by some politicians. These include the likes of Lee Jun-seok, who became the youngest leader of South Korea’s largest opposition party, the People Power Party (PPP), in June last year.
At 36, Lee is too young to run in next year’s presidential election, but the enthusiastic support of his politics by groups such as New Men on Solidarity has raised concerns amid a growing tide of male disenfranchisement towards women’s empowerment.
Political parties have leveraged these divisions in the run-up to the March polls. The ruling Democratic Party has tried to reinforce its appeal with women.
Outgoing President Moon Jae-in declared himself a “feminist” in April, but the party has been rocked by sexual assault allegations that saw the mayor of Busan step down in April last year, while the mayor of Seoul reportedly killed himself after a woman employee accused him of sexual harassment.
The opposition has sought to highlight a different position. Among Lee’s most popular promises is the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which he claimed promotes “reverse discrimination” against men.
The PPP’s presidential candidates are also taking similar approaches with their campaigns: Yoon Seok-yeol blames the country’s low birth rate on feminism; Hong Joon-pyo wants to abolish gender quotas in the workplace; and Yoo Seung-min is also looking to cancel the gender equality ministry.
Their stance has resonated with young men, who swung away from the Democrats in Seoul’s mayoral elections earlier this year – with exit polls showing that nearly 73 per cent of men in their 20s voted for the PPP candidate.
Lee wrote on Facebook that the Democratic Party had lost these elections because of its “fixation on a pro-women agenda”, and had “underestimated the participation of men in their 20s and 30s”.
In recent years, South Korean women have marched in mass protests, with the 2016 murder of a young woman in Gangnam and the spy-camera scandals of 2018 among the triggers.
“These two events have affected Korean women differently,” said Park Jin-kyung, a professor of cultural and gender studies from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “These were threats to their everyday life, to their daily routine. These attacks could have happened to any one of them.”
Park said the by-elections in Seoul and Busan suggested that backlash against women’s empowerment could be a factor in the upcoming presidential election and beyond.
A 2019 study by Seoul National University showed that women in their 20s were the least happy group in South Korea, and preferred to live abroad.
Choi Eun-soo, a psychology professor at Korea University, said the results suggested that young women “feel so much pressure because of the collectivist hierarchy and patriarchal society”.
But the intensification of the women’s movement has sparked a powerful backlash. According to a Realmeter poll from 2018, 76 per cent of men in their 20s declared themselves to be strongly opposed to feminism.
Park said the young men were those “resentful about the evolution of their place in society and who do not want to lose their privileged status”.
New Men on Solidarity, whose slogan is “feminism is a mental illness”, is a major actor behind the backlash. Other online forums, such as FM Korea and e-Dang Dang We, have prompted men to launch cyberbullying campaigns, including one in July that targeted 20-year-old Olympic archer An San for “looking like a feminist”.
“The power of the youth’s online activity is unique to the country,” Park said. “Today, most social debates are being done in cyberspace; it is where people form public opinion, and [shape] future political debate.”
‘Afraid to go outside’
Since the demonstration on August 22, Lee from Haeil has not been able to resume her normal life.
Her personal information and photographs were leaked on antifeminism forums online, and she was caught up in a violent cyber-harassment campaign that included death threats.
Lee has since been diagnosed with panic and major depressive disorders, as well as anxiety and insomnia, for which she is receiving treatment.
“It’s still too tough for me to go outside, so I’m stuck at home,” Lee said. “But many antifeminists send me threatening emails mentioning my personal address, and my computer’s IP address. Even my house doesn’t feel safe any more.”
A spokeswoman from Haeil said the government had not taken any action to stop misogynist communities from targeting women activists. “There is constant sexual harassment, murder threats, and witch-hunting of innocent women,” she said.
In May, various antifeminist forums initiated a petition on the Blue House citizen’s petition board, accusing women teachers of using “underground organisations” to develop a feminist manual to “brainwash” students.
The petition led teachers to face numerous online attacks, Haeil said, but rather than condemning the situation, the government in July appeared to legitimise the antifeminist groups’ stance by conducting an investigation into the teachers’ conduct.
Faulted for their views
Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of reports of women being interrogated over their views on women’s rights.
A report by local broadcaster SBS last month said a woman was asked about her opinion on feminism during a job interview. She was also asked whether men and women had distinct physical strengths and told to remove her face mask so the men who interviewed her “could judge her facial expressions”.
Eun, 24, told This Week in Asia she was asked whether feminism was the reason behind her short haircut during a job interview in Seoul earlier this year. The male interviewer said it did not fit the image expected of her by the company.
The feminist activist, who declined to give her full name, said many people in her life did not share her views. Her relationship with her high school and university friends, as well as her family, fell apart after she opened up about her thoughts on gender equality.
“There was a moment when it seemed the world would never change. As a result, I considered leaving this world,” Eun said. “Not because I disliked myself, but because I just believed I didn’t want to live in this hateful world.”
Suicide rates among South Korean women in their 20s rose by more than 40 per cent last year, while the figures among men of the same age declined during the same period.
According to the Korean Women’s Development Institute, the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the problems faced by young women because they have less economic and social resources than men.
Even so, some groups are continuing to press on with the fight to bridge the divide in a country where the gender pay gap was 34.6 per cent in 2018 and where women in Korea made up 39.5 per cent of the full-time employed population in 2017.
Last year, a group of politicians formed the Women’s Party to increase female voices in the assembly, where just 17 per cent of seats are filled by women. Members come from across the political divide. Among the party’s higher-ranking members is Kim Ju-hee, Haeil’s leader.
While the feminist group is aware that change will take time, they also try to offer some form of mental support to their supporters.
“We have already seen a large number of women’s rights activists withdraw from the battle because of mental exhaustion,” a Haeil spokeswoman said. “We believe that the mental health of team members is the most essential aspect of women’s rights activities to maintain combat.”
Haeil also raises funds to help sexual assault survivors, and provides some legal aid. But keeping up the strength is a long and often lonely process.
“I’m afraid that women’s rights will not improve before I die,” Eun said. “But until then, I intend to do my best.”