The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How South Korea’s ‘anti-feminist’ election fueled a gender war

Over 200 female protesters gathered in central Seoul on Feb. 27, calling for women's representation in South Korea's presidential election. (Min Joo Kim for The Washington Post)
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Haeryun Kang is a journalist and filmmaker based in Seoul.

This week, Yoon Suk-yeol was elected the next president of South Korea, after leading a campaign that capitalized on “anti-feminist” policies and rhetoric. His win signals a major threat to women’s rights over the next five years and could herald increasing governmental and social backlash against feminist movements.

This presidential race was unique in South Korean history because of the way it weaponized feminism. Never before had gender politics been used by mainstream candidates to define key campaign strategies — and incite division between men and women. Profiting from hate and division is not new in politics; the South Korean example shows just how quickly the tides can turn against a progressive movement.

As women’s rights have grown in popularity and awareness in South Korea, backlash against feminism has also expanded. Yoon was notoriously at the forefront of this trend, catering to a swing bloc of young male voters that his right-wing party, People Power, identified as “anti-feminist.” Under the umbrella of youth strategy, he created buzz and influence by targeting this loud, aggressive subgroup. Missing in his strategy were the voices of women.

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People Power, like the current ruling Democratic Party, has a poor track record on women’s rights. After a catastrophic loss in the 2017 elections — following the impeachment and imprisonment of President Park Geun-hye — the conservative party (then the Liberty Korea Party) desperately needed new strategies, especially to expand to a younger base. Merging with others to start People Power, it found one of its answers, unfortunately, in misogyny.

A crucial turning point was the Seoul mayoral by-election last year: 70 percent of male voters in their 20s voted for People Power’s winning candidate, in significant part fueled by the growing popularity of 36-year-old “anti-feminist” politician Lee Jun-seok. Lee then became the youngest leader in the party’s history and has been a key aide to Yoon’s campaign.

Many of Lee and Yoon’s young male supporters argue that men face “reverse discrimination” in South Korea, which has the highest gender pay gap among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and a mere 19 percent female representation in the National Assembly. Jumping on the misogyny bandwagon, members of People Power have called feminism “unconstitutional,” comparing it to extremism and fascism. Yoon himself has denied that structural gender inequality exists.

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Yoon’s platform includes stronger penalties against false complaints of sexual crimes — though these constitute a negligible fraction of cases — and abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The ministry, founded in 2001, supports and funds various women’s programs, including for oft-stigmatized single mothers, survivors of sex crimes, female laborers and migrant women. The ministry also champions broadening the legal definition of family.

Yoon — whose policies concerning women problematically center on traditional roles of motherhood within wedlock — has indicated he wants to replace the current ministry with a new institution focused on children and family, though his camp has said the specifics will be discussed after the election. It’s not clear how far he will go, or how far he can go. The National Assembly is currently dominated by the Democratic Party. Even Yoon’s own party is divided on the policy.

After Yoon’s victory was confirmed, the response from advocates of women’s rights was grim. “This is a heartbreaking and painful outcome,” said Kwon In-sook, a prominent feminist politician and Democratic lawmaker.

Admittedly, the Democratic Party wasn’t exactly a haven for feminists either. Lee Jae-myung, its presidential candidate, initially tried to appeal to “anti-feminist” male voters, including by acknowledging the existence of reverse discrimination and the need to reorganize the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Only when it became clear that Yoon had a stronghold on these votes did Lee cater more forcefully to feminists and young women.

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The final outcome doesn’t indicate a clear-cut triumph for anti-feminists. Lee lost to Yoon by just 0.73 percent, the closest ever margin in a Korean presidential race. Online news website Pressian pointed out that the more crucial voting trend for Yoon was likely increased support in Chungcheong province and Seoul’s expensive real estate districts (failing to control the real estate market is seen as one of President Moon Jae-in’s key failures).

Lee’s last-minute pivot also seems to have succeeded in attracting female voters to the Democratic Party. After the race was over, it reported a near 20,000 increase in membership in two days, largely from women in their 20s and 30s. Within People Power, many supporters, disappointed by the closeness of the race, are calling to oust Lee Jun-seok, criticizing his gender war strategy for galvanizing more women into voting for Lee Jae-myung.

“I have never tried to divide genders,” Yoon said after his win. “I’ve been misunderstood and attacked throughout the race; what reason do I have to divide men and women?”

Such feigning of innocence isn’t good enough reason to hope that Yoon’s bite will be softer than his bark where women’s rights are concerned. So much damage has already been done: The gender wars fueled by this race, from both leading candidates, have led to widespread misunderstanding of feminism, while setting the grounds for long-term, institutional backlash.

If there is a reason to hope, it is that South Korean feminism has solid roots, filled with rich civic debate and tireless proponents of gender equality. It has weathered decades of storms — and will outlive this one.

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