South Korean Election Could Be a Turning Point for Women’s Rights

Recent elections in South Korea gave an anti-feminist party power. But it also provided motivation for feminist activists.

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A feminist demonstration in South Korea in December 2021. (Courtesy)

Earlier this month, Korea’s presidential election brought the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol and his decidedly anti-feminist party into power. But the groundswell of activism and resistance won’t go away. In fact, some think it will only grow stronger.

Online attacks are familiar to women everywhere, but are especially epidemic in South Korea, where feminists are currently fighting a bitter backlash rocking the world’s 10th largest economy. Despite this backlash, Korean feminists are bold and have waged creative campaigns against misogyny.

Despite its economic might, South Korea ranks at the bottom of a number of indicators when it comes to women. It has the largest gender pay gap among the 38 member countries in the OECD, a criminal sex crimes industry, designation as the worst place to be an employed woman by The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index and one of the world’s highest female homicide rates. 

Despite such grim statistics, feminists have fought for change—and won. One of the earliest victories occurred in 2016, after a man murdered a woman in a public restroom at the Gangnam subway station in Seoul. When the press and government claimed it was a random act of violence—even though the man stated he was motivated by misogyny—thousands protested. This led the South Korean government to announce measures designed specifically to address crimes against women.

“Since the very beginning, when the Gangnam femicide happened, I was there with my peers,” said activist Haein Shim, senior director of the feminist organization Haeil (“Tsunami” in Korean), a feminist group founded by activist Kim Ju-hee, who was at the Gangnam protest.. “That was the first time I realized I’m not alone in having this anger in me.”

Two years later, the #MeToo movement took South Korea by storm. According to journalist Hawon Jung, thousands of demonstrators hit the streets in protest. “Throngs of women turned up in courtrooms as a show of support when high-profile #MeToo trials unfolded.”

At the same time, the “spy-cam porn” scandal surfaced, in which it was revealed that men were secretly filming women on subway trains, in office bathrooms or even mid-sex, then posting the footage on the web. Street protests with the slogan “My life is not your porn” was the response. When a woman posted a video of herself taking off her fake eyelashes and makeup, saying that she wanted to accept herself as she was and not chase an impossible beauty norm, the campaign known as Escape the Corset was born and women cut their hair and started wearing gender-neutral clothing. 

Since the very beginning, when the Gangnam femicide happened, I was there with my peers. That was the first time I realized I’m not alone in having this anger in me.

Haein Shim

But these feminist successes have led to an ugly backlash. 

Bae In-kyu, the leader of Men in Solidarity, one of the biggest anti-feminist groups, has taken to showing up at feminist protests in a Joker costume. Bae and his followers, men in their 20s and 30s, taunt protestors and shoot at them with water guns.

A feminist activist who was at a protest in which Bae showed up in a Joker’s costume, said Bae and his followers had “snuck into our private online group chat so they had all of our information, though we used fake names. They knew who each of us were and where we lived and what we did for a living. And then they actually showed up at the protest with water guns. And they shot us. We were afraid that [water in the water guns] was something else, like acid.”

Feminists stood up to these attacks and will continue to do so. Although the conservative party won (by a razor thin margin), the fact that it capitalized on the anti-feminist backlash to gain votes and pledged to eliminate the Ministry of Gender Equality, may not have helped their cause.

I asked journalist Hawon Jung how this month’s election will impact women in the short term.

“I think it can affect women’s movements in both good and bad ways. 

“First, the gender equality ministry has championed many agendas pushed by women’s rights activists, including measures to promote more women to senior positions in businesses, government, and academia, more protection of victims of gender violence, or legalizing a new form of companionship sought by many young women yearning for a life beyond the traditional, patriarchal form of family. Dismantling the ministry means … dealing a major blow to the efforts to promote women’s rights in the country. 

“At the same time, Yoon’s rise to power could create a new groundswell of support for the fight against the potential rollback of women’s rights. … There is undoubtedly a tough road ahead. But if history is any guide (and as we saw in the U.S.), I think this election result could also mark a turning point for many women, and bring new urgency and energy to feminist activism overall.”

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About

Leslie Absher is a journalist and personal essay writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Ms., Independent, Greek Reporter, and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, California with her artist/comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.