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Ahead of election, South Korea’s feminists battle sexist backlash

More than 200 female protesters gather in central Seoul on Feb. 27, calling for women's representation in South Korea's presidential election. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

SEOUL — When Kim Ju-hee was at nursing school, her instructor told the class that “a nurse’s pretty face is part of the service that she provides,” which even for a woman from the conservative Korean city of Daegu was a bit hard to take.

Once Kim began working, she experienced constant sexual harassment and discrimination, prompting her to seek out the support of other women undergoing similar experiences. The 27-year-old then began to fight back, taking on night shifts so that she could be an activist by day, organizing protests against misogyny.

But she and other female activists in South Korea face an uphill battle, especially with a rising male “anti-feminist” movement, whose members stage counter-protests mocking and threatening the women — even as they are increasingly being courted by politicians.

A gender war has erupted among young South Koreans in their 20s, driven by conflicting perceptions of what it means to be truly equal in today’s society. A slow boil of aggrieved male backlash nurtured in the distant corners of angry Internet forums and private Discord channels has erupted to confront a galvanized women’s movement that is challenging decades of traditional attitudes — and the women are losing, experts warn.

Protesters gathered at a rally in Seoul on Feb. 27 in support of feminism ahead of the country’s presidential election on March 9. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

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South Korea is a deeply male-dominated society that has long had a poor record on women’s rights. The nation’s gender wage gap is the worst among developed countries, with little support for women seeking careers past their early 30s. Young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, especially online.

“Growing up, we were told it’s a sad house when a hen crows louder than a rooster, which makes it hard for women to be taken seriously as political actors,” Kim said.

Women’s efforts at equal rights, however, are colliding with a cooling economy and reduced opportunities for most young people that some men have channeled into fury at women — not dissimilar to the woman-hating ’incel’ movement in North America.

The 2016 stabbing of a young woman by a man who said he was angry that women had ignored him triggered a reckoning over the vulnerability of Korean women. Women were emboldened to speak up against the patriarchy and sexual violence — including #MeToo — but this fueled a resentment among some men who saw feminism as a conspiracy to take away their opportunities.

The anger among these “anti-feminists” is rooted in economic insecurity. They feel alienated by the policies that were created to close the chronic gender gap in South Korea, and see job offers and college acceptance letters slipping away as they pack up for mandatory military service — from which women are exempt. Rising income inequality and housing prices have exacerbated their vitriol.

Now, this gender battle has made its way to the March 9 presidential election. The conservative candidate has long appealed to the men, while his liberal challenger is only just now making a last-ditch effort to win over the women. Women’s voices are largely drowned out by men’s in politics, experts say.

The 2016 murder was a pivotal moment that injected renewed momentum into women’s rights advocacy. A string of high-profile #MeToo cases in 2018 brought down powerful Korean men in politics, arts and education, prompting a wave of solidarity and support for sexually assaulted women.

Through the “Escape the Corset” protest, Korean women rejected unreal K-beauty standards and the social pressure to conform. A feminist novel, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982swept popular culture by depicting a stay-at-home mom’s experiences with everyday sexism, helping women feel seen.

But the fight for gender equality in South Korea can feel Sisyphean, with few lasting gains.

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While workforce participation for women in their 20s is higher than their male counterparts, data show it plummets in their 30s and 40s — a sign of their persistent lack of upward mobility in the workplace once they are expected to have children and raise them.

The South Korean government has been taking measures to increase female participation in the workforce, hiring more women in the public sector and incentivizing private companies to do the same. But the women who choose to stay in the workforce say they continue to face difficulties: unequal pay, discrimination in promotion, harassment and difficulty to balance work and child care.

Ten years ago, when South Korea elected its first female president, some were hopeful that it could normalize the idea of women in positions of power. But Park Geun-hye was no beacon of gender parity as the daughter of a former president. She was later impeached and removed in disgrace for corruption.

Her successor, Moon Jae-in, pledged to be a “feminist president.” But his record has not lived up to his rhetoric. “All this under a self-proclaimed feminist president,” said Katharine Moon, political science professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and an expert in South Korean gender politics. “One wonders what could have happen under a self-proclaimed anti-feminist president.”

Many young men of South Korea see a different picture. A survey last year by Hankook Ilbo newspaper found that young South Korean men feel “seriously discriminated against” because of their gender: 78.9 percent of male respondents in their 20s, roughly twice as high as respondents in their 50s and 60s.

These men reject traditional gender roles and their grievances do not stem from an old-school patriarchal worldview, the newspaper said, instead they believe South Korea has achieved gender parity even while women still enjoy unfair protection as “the weaker party” in the society.

So, with each advance of women’s movement, their backlash became more fierce. When “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” went viral, some young men set photos on fire of a female K-pop star who said she had read it. They have invented their own vocabulary, accusing people of “being femi,” like having a mental illness, or “doing femi,” like a harmful, mind-altering substance.

With South Korea’s economic growth slowing down after a period of rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s, fresh college graduates now face a fiercely competitive job market. In addition, men between ages 18 and 28 must serve 18 months in the military — a tradition since the Korean War that anti-feminists see as unfairly disadvantaging men in the job market.

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When they seek to enter the workforce, men in their 20s face higher unemployment rates than their female counterparts, on top of the fact that female high school graduates have higher college acceptance rates than men.

“Young men in South Korea do not enjoy the male privilege like the older generation did, yet they feel trapped by persisting expectations for masculine duties, including the mandatory military service,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

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The gender fight has now become a defining election issue. With the election neck-and-neck, many observers believe that youths could be the swing vote.

Both main contenders, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol and liberal Lee Jae-myung, have vowed to revamp or abolish the country’s Ministry for Gender Equality, alarming women’s rights advocates, who say it performs an essential role.

“While politicians stir up the anti-feminist sentiment for attention, young South Korean women are seriously marginalized with their voices underrepresented in the pivotal election,” said Koo of Sungkyunkwan University.

Kim, the activist, says she feels “robbed of my voting right.” At a recent protest, her activist group, Team Haeil, led some 200 women who gathered in front of Seoul’s Ministry of Gender Equality.

“Half of the voters are women, but no policy for women,” the protesters shouted, as they marched from the ministry to Seoul’s presidential Blue House.

Yoon, the conservative nominee, has said that he doesn’t think systemic “structural discrimination based on gender” even exists.

In recent weeks, the liberal nominee Lee has switched tactics and worked to appeal to women, appearing at rallies with young female supporters and proposing changes like protection for sexual violence victims.

Experts, however, say that the real problem, for both men and women, are the deep economic inequalities in society with a need for major systemic change.

“Lacking a fundamental solution to underlying problems in the economy and the job market, politicians are pitting young men and women against each other,” said Kwon Myoung-a, head of Institute for Gender and Affect Studies at Dong-A University in South Korea.