On March 4, recipients of South Korea’s annual “obstacles to gender equality” award were announced at an early International Women’s Day rally in Seoul. As expected, among the “winners” were companies with discriminatory practices and a politician who had recently made a sexist remark. But one recipient stood out from the crowd: Gender Equality Minister Kim Hyunsook. Kim, who is supposed to be the top advocate for women’s rights in the country, was selected to receive the tongue-in-cheek award reportedly for her “ignorant and irresponsible” attitude towards sexism.
The so-called gender equality minister’s tragicomic achievement encapsulates the state of women’s rights in South Korea after a year under Yoon Seok-yul’s conservative government.
Yoon won the March 9, 2022, presidential election on an openly misogynistic platform – he worked hard to appeal to men who are anxious about losing ground to women and expertly capitalised on the growing anti-feminist backlash in the country.
And since Yoon’s ascent to the presidency, gender equality has become a taboo topic in Korean public life. Political efforts to further women’s rights hit a wall, and past achievements came under sustained attack. This is a deeply worrying development, as South Korea’s record on women’s rights, especially in workplaces, was already much worse than most of the industrialised world before the Yoon presidency.
South Korea is the world’s 10th-largest economy. It is a tech giant that is home to Samsung and many other leading technology companies. It is also a cultural powerhouse whose many movie, TV and pop stars boast large global followings. But the country is also deeply patriarchal and remains a leader in gender inequality. It has recorded the largest gender pay gap among the OECD member nations every single year for nearly three decades. It has also been at the bottom of the Economist magazine’s Glass Ceiling index for a decade.
Korean women are often pressured to give up their careers after childbirth and those who work outside the home still carry out the lion’s share of household chores and childcare duties. Sexual crimes against women, especially technology-facilitated sexual violence, such as the use of spy cams to secretly film women, are rampant in both public and private spheres.
Since the late 2010s, however, Korean women have been fighting against their country’s patriarchal culture with unprecedented force. Through a local #MeToo movement, arguably the most robust in all of Asia, they exposed the sexual misconduct of many powerful men, including that of a presidential contender. They fought vigorously for tougher punishments for spy-cam crimes. They successfully campaigned to abolish the country’s decades-long abortion ban. And millions of them vowed to stay unmarried and childfree in a so-called “birth strike” against patriarchal customs and traditions, causing South Korea to break its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate in 2022.
This outburst of feminist advocacy, however, triggered an angry pushback from men who thought women were going too far, demanding too much and, in the process, harming Korean society. Feminists began to be vilified online as “mentally diseased” people following an “antisocial ideology”. The resentment was most palpable among young men who saw feminist gains as personal losses and felt their place in society was being threatened (in one recent poll, for example, nearly 80 percent of South Korean men in their 20s said they see themselves as victims of “gender discrimination”).
Yoon’s right-wing People Power Party (PPP) expertly tapped into this well of resentment. During his presidential campaign, Yoon said structural sexism no longer existed in South Korea. He blamed feminism for the country’s low fertility rates, claiming feminist ideas make it “difficult for men and women to date”. He also vowed to introduce tougher punishments for those who make false accusations of sexual assault, although such cases are extremely rare and focusing the conversation on alleged false accusers discourages real victims from coming forward. His campaign’s key promise to dismantle the Gender Equality Ministry – which has played a pivotal role in tackling gender discrimination and violence in recent years – proved to be a hit, and shored up significant support from young, male voters.
And since Yoon took office last May, attacks on South Korea’s women’s rights movement and the gains it made over the years have unfolded with numbing regularity.
State offices tasked with furthering gender equality and women’s rights in local contexts were swiftly rebranded as those for “family” or “children” and made to focus solely on women’s reproductive and child-rearing roles. The term “gender equality” was removed from textbooks and funding for youth programmes combatting everyday sexism was scrapped.
The president has not yet managed to dismantle the Gender Equality Ministry, but his party remains committed to replacing it with a smaller office responsible for, among other things, “population and family”. And the ministry’s powers and influence have already been significantly curtailed.
When the Gender Equality Ministry suggested reforming South Korea’s outdated rape law defined on the basis of physical violence rather than a lack of consent, for example, the justice ministry struck down the proposal within hours.
The gender equality minister appointed by Yoon, “Obstacle to gender equality” award holder Kim Hyunsook, has also been working to undermine the work of her own ministry.
Last year, when the violent murders of two women – one in a subway station toilet and the other on a college campus – at the hands of men who stalked or raped them occupied news headlines in South Korea, Kim rejected the idea that misogyny was at play. She went as far as to blame one victim for not working hard enough to protect herself from male predation and stressed that such incidents should not be used to fan “conflicts” between men and women.
In this context, there is very little to celebrate this International Women’s Day in South Korea. Women are angry and upset to see the government’s determined efforts to reverse the progress made by the feminist movement in the past decade.
This frustration was palpable at Saturday’s rally in Seoul. Women were more sombre and angrier than usual. “Let’s fight against this era of regression!” they chanted. “Stop erasing women and gender equality!” they shouted as they marched down the streets, pumping their fists into the air in unison.
“It’s undoubtedly a very difficult time for us,” Lee Hyo-rin, an activist with the nonprofit Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center, told me. “The only way we can survive these difficult times is through more solidarity and by connecting with each other.”
Lee said the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on social gatherings it necessitated made it difficult for South Korean women to resist the anti-feminist backlash in the country.
“But now we are ready to meet each other again,” she said at Saturday’s rally – the first major gathering of feminists since the pandemic began in 2020. “We’ll ride out the backlash. We’ll be stronger when we’re connected.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.