From chart-topping K-pop girl groups to strong K-drama female leads, South Korea’s pop culture would lead you to believe it’s a nation that’s on par with the world in terms of economy, entertainment, and gender equality. However, beneath its polished surface, the reality is not quite perfect. South Korea may have risen from the ashes of war to become one of the world’s top economies, but still lags behind much of the OECD in terms of gender equality.

For decades now, deep-rooted patriarchal ideologies and practices have given way to an undercurrent of resistance to South Korea’s progress in gender equality. There’s been increasing anti-feminist backlash among young men – an issue which was brought to the nation’s forefront in March’s presidential election in which Yoon Suk-yeol, who’s been an open critic of feminism, emerged victorious.

Misogyny has never come to the fore in South Korea like it has recently, and it has taken shape in multiple forms, from patriarchy and gender discrimination to sexual harassment, violence against women, and sexual objectification.

At the governmental level

South Korea’s 2022 presidential election showed a pronounced divide by gender, especially for Gen Z: around 60% of women in their 20s supported progressive candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, while 60% of their male counterparts supported Yoon of the conservative People Power Party. This gender divide has been exploited by politicians.

In order to court young male voters, one of Yoon’s more contentious promises was to dissolve the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (or “Ministry of Women and Family” in Korean), which he says focuses too much on women’s rights and is no longer necessary. However, the ministry doesn’t just promote equality, it helps victims of sexual violence and single mothers. 

Yoon has also openly blamed feminism for low birthrates, and has promised to enhance punishments for false accusations of sexual violence, which could deter more women from stepping forward.

Ironically, according to a poll in May, nearly 79% of Korean men in their 20s feel they’re the victims of serious gender discrimination, citing reverse discrimination that stems from feminism and women-focused policies. 

Many young men regard women’s advancement as a threat to their financial security. They fear losing out to women in the cutthroat competition for tertiary education and jobs – especially when they have to serve mandatory military service (a touchy subject that’s also at play here in Singapore).

Among contention too is the country’s affirmative action, which was implemented in 2006 to expand women’s employment and counter deeply-rooted discriminatory practices in public and private companies. Ironically, while the policy only called for women to represent a certain percentage of the workforce, there were no stipulations on wages, resulting in a huge wage gap between men and women – it was 35.9% in 2020, which is far higher than the OECD average of 12.8%. Yet women’s enrollment rate in higher education was 5% higher than that of their male counterparts as of 2020. 

Men against feminism

The resentment of feminism has been around since the beginning of the #MeToo movement back in 2018, when South Korea was thrust into global news for the nation’s digital sex crimes – over 30,000 cases of illicit filming using hidden spycams were reported between 2013 and 2018. The images were uploaded to websites where men pay to access them. Prosecutors dropped 43.5% of sexual digital crimes cases in 2019, and it remained difficult for women to get justice, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in June 2021.

South Korea has also seen a bizarre form of sexual violence dubbed “semen terrorism,” where men would ejaculate onto unsuspecting women’s posessions, from coffee tumblers to shoes. So far, “semen terrorists” have gotten off lightly (pardon the pun) since their crimes were punishable as mere property damage.

These incidents prompted mass protests by South Korean women; at a marathon #MeToo protest in Seoul in 2018, almost 200 women voiced their experiences of sexual harassment for 2018 minutes non-stop. 

Instead of sympathising with women, Korean men instead went on protests of their own with their mantra “Feminism is a mental illness!” The most prominent anti-feminist group, Man on Solidarity, targets anything that smacks of feminism. Groups like that create a culture of misogyny in male-dominant online communities, depicting feminists as radical misandrists or “feminazis” and arguing that feminists are “female supremacists” rather than champions of gender equality.

They’ve also threatened businesses with boycotts, simply because they were insulted with the pinched finger emoji which they said ridiculed the size of their manhood. Weirder still was that companies actually pulled ads with those images because of them. In January, a McDonald’s worldwide Twitter campaign asked followers to reply with a pinched finger emoji to “steal a fry” which wouldn’t go down well in South Korea.  

In addition, these “men’s rights groups” also forced a university to cancel a lecture by a woman they accused of spreading misandry, as well as vilified prominent women – like the three-time Tokyo Olympics gold medallist archer An San – simply for having a short haircut. 

According to South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission, “women” and “feminists” are two of the most common targets of online hate speech in the nation. But protests and boycotts are nothing compared to the next level of anti-feminism: femicide.

The murders 

South Korea has a femicide problem; just last year alone, there’s been a spate of murders targeting women. These include two young girls who spoke out against sexual assault, a woman who just started dating her murderer, two karaoke room assistants, and a woman who was murdered by her long abusive husband.

And there seems to be a pattern among South Korea’s femicide: 36% of these murders of women by an intimate partner (ie. husband or boyfriend) have a history of abuse, and 67% of these murders happened in the home. An analysis of the murders reveal that among various reasons for men committing these crimes, the most common included “resentment,” “feeling disregarded,” and “jealousy.” In about 29% of the cases, men actually murdered women for breaking up with them and refusing to get back together.

There’s been several cases in the news where women have been killed by their abusive partners despite warning signs or even being under police protection. In one case, a murderer stalked the victim but was arrested – oddly, an arrest warrant was rejected by the prosecution. So he returned days later and stabbed her to death. 

Even when the perpetrators were arrested, their average sentence for killing a female spouse was 12.8 years, compared to 14.4 years for homicide. A large part of it is due to opposition to punishment by 17% of the surviving members of a femicide, compared to just 9% of homicides.

Korea Women’s Hotline notes that men’s reasons for killing women are “tied to a very simple reason: the woman didn’t do what the man wanted her to do.” It simply reveals that the fundamental motive for killing women is a patriarchal desire to control them, as well as Korean society’s tendency to downplay crimes against women. 

A change in the wind

There’s been a quiet determination, especially among young South Korean women, to shake the pillars of this once patriarchal society. These days, many women work as professionals and over 60% of teachers, including university professors, are women. The share of female members in government has also increased dramatically over the years, while women have led 40% of businesses as of 2017.

In terms of laws to protect women, a Cyber Sex Crime Investigation Team has been set up in every city and province in the country to prevent digital spycam crimes, while prosecutors are seeking ways to make “semen terrorism” a punishable sex crime.

South Korea is kind of in an unusual situation. From the standpoint of GDP or cultural influence – like Squid Game and BTS – it looks like South Korea is on par with other nations in the OECD. However, when it comes to gender equality, it still lags behind a lot of other countries.