In the wake of the sex scandals surrounding high profile figures, feminist activism in South Korea has been gaining momentum. Last year, public backlash against increased cases of sexual misconduct and revenge porn has led to large scale demonstrations in Seoul, the capital city. This was regarded as the #MeToo moment of South Korea.
However, there are strong negative perceptions associated with feminism in the country. Anti-feminist sentiments and Confucianist social norms undermine the campaigns of women’s rights advocacy groups. Therefore, the question remains as to how the rise in feminist activism will resist against these negative perceptions and institutional norms that are in favour of a patriarchal society.
To give a brief history, the 1980’s was a turning point for feminism in South Korea. The democratization movement against the military regime played an important role in the development of an independent women’s rights movement. Although feminist groups existed before this decade, they were very fragmented within different civil society organizations until late 1980’s. With the formation of KWAU (Korean Women’s Association United) in 1987, feminism in South Korea took its first institutional form. However during this decade, feminist groups prioritised democratic transition over pushing for their own agenda.
After democratization, women’s rights movements started to campaign for separate policy agendas. Within the context of changing social and political dynamics, they targeted a wide range of issues starting from legislation on sex crimes, gender wage gap, double shift burden as well as the patriarchal aspects of the family law.
What is the current situation then? Many of these issues are still debated in the country. Despite changes in legal provisions, a cultural environment which favors sustaining gender norms prevents drastic changes from happening on the institutional level. For example, the Equal Employment Act was first introduced in late 1987 to target pay equity and job opportunities for women. Several revisions were implemented in the following years about maternity leave and work-family life balance. Yet even with these legislative changes, the gender equality statistics in South Korea show concerning trends.
The work force participation levels significantly drop for women in their 30s, parallel with marriage and childbirth periods. A working environment based on long hours of work and a lack of extensive childcare services make it difficult to continue with employment after becoming parents.
According to Yoon Jayoung there are also cultural factors that reinforce this gender based division of labour in the country. Based on the idea of women as the primary caregivers in the family, mothers are expected to stay at home in the early lives of their children. These trends are perceived negatively by hiring managers as they do not wish to invest in workers that are bound to quit work. Also, according to 2017 statistics, with 36.4%, South Korea has the highest percentage of gender wage gap among 41 OECD countries. Such institutional problems are the main concern of current feminist groups.
However, public reception of the women’s rights movement is far from favorable. There is a strong stigma associated with the term feminism in the South Korean society. The controversial actions of radical feminist groups have created negative perceptions on feminism. Their statements with threats of violence against men, online bullying and a child abuse scandal have led to the belief that feminism is an extremist position. As recent as last year, a K-pop idol received public backlash after she shared an image of her reading a novel that is considered to be “an iconic piece of feminist literature” (Korea Herald). She received criticism especially from her male fans that identified themselves as anti-feminists.
In this sense, there is a growing trend of anti-feminist discourse parallel to the rise of women’s rights advocacy over the past year. “According to the results of an online survey conducted by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, over half of South Korean men in their 20s have anti-feminist attitudes” (Korea Herald).
Following this, the main argument provided by anti-feminist groups is based on the idea of reverse sexism. They claim that while men have to enlist in compulsory military service for two years, women can move on with their educational or professional lives. Also they point out that the financial expectations on men are much more demanding in families than they are for women especially during marriage. Therefore they see gender equality campaigns of women’s rights movement as unfair and distortive of current facts.
On the other hand, as a country struggling with a demographic crisis, the government has been increasingly cooperative with women’s rights movement. According to Yoon this was caused by a necessity to address the implications of dropping fertility rates and labour shortages. She claims that this has allowed for women’s rights advocacy groups to participate more in the policy making processes. The government has welcomed the campaigns of these groups to promote women’s participation to the labour market. Just as well, in the last two decades feminist activists have been increasingly involved in formal politics, promoting their policy agenda on local and national levels.
In that sense, can we consider this as a window of opportunity for feminism? With a new president that has described himself as a feminist, South Korean political dynamics seem to be in favor of the women’s rights advocacy groups. However, it was also recently reported that his popularity polls are in decline among men in their 20s.
It is important in this case to question the implications of increases in clashing gender identities. Is this window of opportunity still available despite the rising tensions in the society? In any case, feminist groups will have to address this issue in order to break away from the negative perceptions associated with their movement and target long term change in the institutional values of their country.