Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol won South Korea’s presidency earlier this month, after a tedious campaign marked by anti-feminist backlash. In light of Yoon’s campaign pledge to dissolve the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 9to5 Groningen asked young Korean women how they felt about this new political turn.
“I literally couldn’t sleep when the results were being counted.” Hyemin Kim (25) felt crushed when on March 9, Yoon Suk-yeol from the People Power Party won the elections with 48,56% of the votes.
The young woman, who works in theatre production in Seoul, deplored the results on her Instagram stories: “I said sarcastically, ‘I lost my country.’ Girls my age also posted stories until late at night, feeling the same as me.”
After a heated campaign, Yoon won by a historically tight margin against his Democrat opponent Lee Jae-myung, who obtained a 47,83% score.
Despite corruption scandals and growing socioeconomic inequalities in South Korean society, the topic that generated the most media frenzy was gender inequality.
Since late 2021, an anti-feminist movement spearheaded by young men took to the streets and the internet to voice anger at the lack opportunities they believe men have been facing.
“Young men think they are suffering from inequality and that women’s status has risen excessively,” explained Kim.
“In Korea, if a woman says ‘I’m a feminist’, many men ridicule her,” she added. “Because of this, many women – including me – don’t reveal we are feminists. Like ‘you know who’ in Harry Potter. If I said I’m a feminist right now, my face and personal info could be floating on the internet right away.”
With a widening wage gap, skyrocketing housing prices and limited professional opportunities, South Korea is going through a domestic economic crisis of its own.
“The Korean government pushed a lot of money to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This caused inflation and in turn, affected the housing market,” Dr Sunkung Choi, an assistant Professor and Economist at the University of Groningen, told 9to5. “In Korea, the centralisation tendency toward the capital city is extreme: everything is in Seoul. Therefore, the surge of house prices got even worse.”
Such precarity left many young men frustrated. Anti-feminist groups argued that the compulsory military service – 18 to 21 months for all South Korean men – disadvantaged them: “During that time, women may go on working holidays to other countries or study more for their careers,” explained Dr Choi.
“Young men started to see it as unfair that they would sacrifice their youth without any compensation. Instead of fighting for better institutions, compensations or measures, they started to blame their limited options on women.”
Soon, this demographic was targeted by Yoon, who embraced such claims of feminism gone too far.
As a candidate, he declared that structural gender equality no longer existed in South Korea and promised harsher punishments for false sexual assault allegations, despite tough existing laws on the matter.
More importantly, Yoon made the dissolution of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family his campaign promise.
Remarkable economic growth benefited South Korean women who nowadays have a wide access to higher education and higher labour participation rates. However, traditional perceptions of gender roles prevail.
“Women may have equal opportunity as a daughter or a student, or an employee. However, once they get married and when they have a child, the expected role is still the same as our mother’s generation, and this bothers women’s growth in their career,” Dr Choi commented.
The night of the elections, South Korean journalist Hawon Jung wrote a thread on Twitter, detailing how the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family supported women.
She lamented that its dissolution could cut short the help women receive after suffering from tech-based sexual abuse or professional discriminations after becoming pregnant – amongst other things.
Sooyeon Jin, 25, studies Econometrics in Groningen. The Jeju Island native is not dissatisfied with Yoon’s victory. “I’m on the side that supports Yoon because he advocates less restrictions for businesses.”
However, Jin believes in gender equality and would identify herself as a feminist.
She does support a dissolution of the Ministry of Gender Equality, because in Korean, it translates to ‘Ministry of Women and Family’. “I think it’s an issue because it frames taking care of the family as a woman’s job.”
Jin told 9to5 that although she believed that “the radical feminist community” in South Korea can be unfair to men, she was still worried about gender equality in her country.
“The newly elected party says there is no structural gender discrimination, but there is – and we should change it. It does not make sense to think there are less women in powerful positions because they are are less interested. South Korean Society regulates women like that.”
While other women like Hyemin Kim consider Yoon’s victory as a huge set-back, they take comfort in the attention that young female voters received.
“The media paid attention to the votes of women in their 20s and 30s for the first time in history. It showed that our power is never small. We will continue our fight,” she told 9to5. ‘It will change something one day.”
Cover picture by Daniel Bernard