The Crucial Feminist Movement in South Korea
Read about South Korean Women's fight towards equality in a male-centered society.
by Sarah Hoffman
While South Korea is a rising economic power and dominates the technology industry, it is still a male-centered society. In recent years, women have fought to legalize abortion and organized an anti-spycam and MeToo movement that is recorded as the largest women’s rights demonstration in Korean history. Some of their most radical campaigners have vowed to never have sex with men, marry, or have children.
However, with this rise in empowerment comes the fierce backlash of anti-feminist movements. In fact, many people often associate feminism in South Korea with hating men. In fact 65% of South Korean men in their 20s associate feminism with the hatred of men. Anti-feminism is gaining broad support from everyone, not just the conservative population.
When the ‘pinching-hand” emoji was created back in 2019, it generated mixed reviews from people. One publication said this was the new emoji that correlated with “hating men.” However, South Korean men took this to great offense. The hand was used as a logo by a feminist group called Magalia, which unfortunately no longer exists because of this controversy.
However, they certainly made a lasting impact, because it set off a chain of events infuriating men’s rights groups. These groups have been hunting down organizations using these emojis in ad campaigns or posters. What is even worse is that they have singled out companies, organizations, and individual employees that align with feminism, bombarding these institutions with complaints or calling for nationwide boycotts.
Instead, these self-proclaimed “men’s rights” organizations call for more equality within society through legislation such as men having to perform two-year compulsory military services while women are exempt. However, they decide to be up in arms over a simple emoji. These are the same organizations and activists who chant “feminism is a mental illness” in street protests.
According to the OECD, the pursuit of gender equality in South Korea is an “uphill battle.” Those who are fighting may not always have the most effective methods, but given the struggle many women and femme-presenting people are facing, it is understandable that they will take any approach to have their voices heard. Sometimes, making noise even if it generates negative publicity is better than gaining no recognition at all.
Furthermore, women and femme-presenting people are often targeted for their physical appearance, whether it is their bodies, body hair, clothing, or makeup objectification. Therefore, when the situation is flipped and men are objectified for their bodies, all of a sudden corporations began to discipline their employees for doing the exact same thing as men. Many government municipalities have even apologized and recreated promotional material.
The pinching hand debate began in South Korea in 2015. That year, women became fed up with widespread misogyny in male-dominated sectors. They decided to give them a taste of their own medicine. They reduced them to their physical size, often poking fun at their genitals.
The slightest form of “discrimination” men are facing in South Korea makes them feel that they are victimized by the feminist movement.
Gender pay gaps
However, there are massive gender gaps within the country that require more attention than worrying about a simple finger emoji. The gender pay gap is the highest in the OECD: women working in Korea only earn 63% of what men earn.
Many women withdraw from work once they become pregnant. Some either leave temporarily or permanently to care for their children. This contributes to the gender pay gap regarding pension entitlement. It especially impacts older women’s poverty levels. Social expectations and culture pressure women to withdraw from the workforce even if they don’t feel the need to do so. This can make it difficult for mothers to return to well-paid jobs and resume their careers.
Only 56.2% of Korean women are in paid employment. Yet Korean women and girls score above average on their PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and in PIAAC (Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies). They also have higher levels of educational attainment than their male peers. The reason for their under-performance in the labor market is certainly not due to lack of qualifications, but due to a lack of opportunity.
Furthermore, women only hold 17% of the seats in the National Assembly in South Korea. When more women hold seats in public office it generates a positive influence on public life. It is no wonder women and femme presenting people in South Korea are angry as South Korea remains one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.
A Brief Conclusion
One thing's for sure: supporting South Korean feminism is necessary to achieve gender equality. The reality is women and femme-presenting people in the country are expected to uphold patriarchal values and have faced sexism for far too long. Those who feel victimized by feminism in South Korea must educate themselves on who their society values more. Those who are treated as second-class citizens understand they have less to lose in this fight, and only more to gain.