South Korea’s gender equality hopes on hold after ‘anti-feminist’ becomes president

Yoon defeated liberal ruling party candidate in closely contested presidential election

The election of an avowed "anti-feminist" as the next president of South Korea has been greeted with dismay amid accusations Yoon Suk-yeol fuelled the county's gender divide to garner support from young male voters.

Former top prosecutor Mr Yoon defeated the liberal ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung by a margin of 263,000 votes last week in one of the most closely contested presidential elections in recent memory.

Mr Yoon has blamed the country’s low birth rate on feminism. He has called for the abolishment of the gender equality ministry, which he says focuses too much on women’s rights and is no longer necessary. He has promised to enhance punishments for false accusations of sexual violence, a step campaigners say will deter even more women from coming forward.

An exit poll showed only 34 per cent of women in their 20s marked Yoon on their ballot paper, compared with 59 per cent of men in their 20s, and 53 per cent of those in their 30s.

Kim Hye-yoon, a 34-year-old woman from Gwangju, said she felt “bitter” at the result. “Everyone knows that misogyny in Korea is a serious problem, and while it’s comforting to see change is occurring, when I saw the election of a candidate who pledged misogyny, I knew we still have a long way to go,” she says.

Ms Kim said the result was expected given so much criticism of the current administration, including a sluggish economy and soaring house prices.

South Korea suffers from poisonous gender politics. Many young men regard women’s advancement as a threat to their financial security, amid a bleak job market and rising living costs, especially when they also have to serve mandatory military service. Surveys have shown that young men believe that it is they who are victims of gender discrimination, fuelling a gender divide that has been exploited by politicians.

Victim

Jieun Choi is a South Korean journalist and a victim of spycam crime – the use of secret cameras to film women, often in public toilets. She said the election was a “pivotal moment” in terms of how women’s issues are talked about in public discourse.

“The major parties, especially the conservative party, didn’t shy away from using misogyny as a political tactic,” she says, adding that the solidarity young women felt in 2022 was reminiscent of the way massive street protests were organised by women online against the use of spycams in 2018.

“A lot of my friends were devastated by the result,” she says.

After Mr Yoon’s election, the Korea Women’s Associations United issued a statement accusing him of “disappointing many people by actively using the regressive and fictional frame of hate incitement and gender conflict” and urging the incoming government to fulfil its responsibility to realise gender equality.

During a press conference, he denied promoting a gender divide. Some controversial comments made in the run-up to the election suggest otherwise.

On International Women’s Day, which fell the day before the election, he retracted a description of himself as a feminist in a Washington Post interview. His camp described the wording as an “administrative error”.

He has stated that South Korea has “no structural gender discrimination”, describing it instead as a “personal matter”, despite ample evidence suggesting otherwise in indices measuring women’s rights and gender equality. Women continue to face everyday sexism, including pervasive digital sex crimes. Some 80 per cent of victims of spycam crime are women, 98 per cent of perpetrators are men.

Yanglee Hyun-kyung, corepresentative of Korea Women’s Associations United, said she was “worried” about gender equality policies being ignored under Yoon.

Polarised

"Korean society will continue to be very unequal and polarised, and I am very concerned about how this discrimination will be resolved," she said at an event in Seoul denouncing the politics of hate and discrimination on Friday.

“Yoon’s call to abolish the gender equality ministry was an election strategy based on distorted misinformation. I hope he will realise the importance of it when he becomes president.”

No official statement has been released regarding the possible dismantling of the gender equality ministry. An official who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity said the mood in the ministry was “quiet” but that staff would continue to work hard as normal until further notice.

If Mr Yoon follows through on his pledge, it is unclear whether it will be accepted by the country’s parliament, where the now opposition Democratic party has a majority. Some observers predict that his policy of abolishment may become more of a reorganisation.

Kim Hye-yoon is looking towards the future – presidents in South Korea are limited to a single five-year term. “I think we will be able to write a new history of women’s politicisation if we work hard for the next five years.” – Guardian

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