What lies behind South Korea’s politics of gender hate

By Kyoung-hee Moon, Professor, Changwon National University

Kyoung-hee Moon asks, why in democratic South Korea in 2022 did the politics of gender hate influence the voting choice of so many young Korean men at the presidential election?

On 10 May, former top prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol was inaugurated as the 20th president of South Korea. Yoon, the candidate of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), defeated the Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung in an election on 9 March by about 240,000 votes. The difference was a mere a 0.73 percentage points (48.56 percent versus 47.83 percent) – the narrowest margin of victory since the country adopted direct presidential elections in 1987.

It reflected an uninspiring and bitterly divided campaign in which neither candidate captured the public imagination. Verification of election pledges through policy discussions or communication between candidates was almost precluded. Instead, the campaign was characterised by gossip, acrimony, and suspicion, accentuating the Korean disease of “hate politics”.

Playing on the ardent regionalism between Gyeongsang-do, on the east of the Korean Peninsula, and Jeolla-do, on the west, and between hardliners and non-hardliners on North Korea have long been effective election strategies in South Korea. However, this presidential campaign introduced a new target of hate politics: gender rights.

The Yoon campaign unashamedly appealed to the perceptions of young men that they have been disadvantaged by advances in female employment and social rights in recent years. In a famously patriarchal and socially conservative society, Yoon’s party strategically used anti-feminist rhetoric during the campaign to gain popularity among these disillusioned young male voters.

“A female-dominated society”, “reverse discrimination against men”, “transferring gender budgets to cover defence expenses”, and “abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family”, were some of the claims and pledges made by the PPP during the election.

“This is not only about ignorance of gender, but about ignorance of Korean society,” feminist scholar Jeong Hee-jin said. “It is not just a lie about women. If you know anything about national defence or the law, you cannot say that.”

Still, the political cynicism paid off. Exit polls on election day showed 59 percent of male respondents in their 20s and 53 percent in their 30s voted for Yoon. In contrast, only 34 percent of women in their 20s voted for him; 58 percent for Lee Jae-myung.

Yoon campaign rally
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol greets rally during 2022 presidential campaign, Gongju, South Korea - March 3, 2022. Image credit: Republic of Korea National Assembly. 

Consequently, the conservative party’s election strategy could be judged as at least half successful. In previous elections, both young men and women tended to support progressive candidates rather than the conservatives. However, in this election the conservative PPP’s message that affirmative action, such as gender quotas, was an “unfair” government system that disadvantaged men, clearly struck a chord.

During the campaign, the 37-year-old PPP party leader, Lee Jun-seok, accused the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family of implementing a policy of structural discrimination against men. In an interview with the newspaper Hankook-Ilbo one month before the election, Yoon stated that Korea has “no structural gender discrimination” and discrimination was a “personal matter”. Feminist equality discourses and agendas were branded as no more than instruments of state “unfairness” and “injustice” imposed by the previous Moon Jae-in administration.

Ministry for Gender Equality
Former Minister for Gender Equality and Families Lee Jung-ok launches the Women's Human Rights Promotion Institute of Korea, Seoul, South Korea - January 7, 2020. Image credit: Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

This attack on feminism in the local political arena is not a new phenomenon. But it is more often a feature of policy and politics in authoritarian states than well-established democracies.

Why in 2022 in democratic South Korea did politics of gender hate influence so many young Korean men?

The peaceful candlelight protests in the autumn and winter of 2016 and 2017 calling for the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye marked a critical moment in the maturation of Korean democracy. Those protesters subsequently entrusted the presidency to Moon Jae-in. In his inaugural address, Moon promised “equal opportunity, due process, and a just outcome” under his administration. The performance of the Moon administration will need to be assessed in light of future developments, but the 2022 election result shows he failed to satisfy many voters, even those who voted for him five years ago.

Although Moon enjoyed relatively high popularity compared to his predecessors throughout his presidency, his administration disappointed the public by failing to control soaring housing prices and the rise in precarious modes of work.

The lack of housing and job opportunities, combined with a series of sexual harassment scandals implicating former mayors of Seoul and Pusan from Moon’s DP, fuelled doubt in his administration’s ability to manage state affairs competently and justly.

Moreover, a string of accusations that some high-level public officers under his administration and DP members of parliament had obtained preferential treatment for themselves and their family members raised questions over the propriety of the administration and party. Young people were especially angered by evidence of persistent favouritism and exceptionalism in education and employment for the children and spouses of some members of the DP, from the so-called “Generation 586” – those who achieved success in their political careers based on their contribution to the democratisation movement of the 1980s. This particularly disappointed young people who hoped to see “a world without privilege” as promised by Moon. The former president is criticised for failing to stop the elite from passing the “gold spoon” of privilege onto their children, leaving the working class to continue to struggle with the ”dirt spoon” of meagre opportunity and economic insecurity.

While both young men and women felt the same sense of disillusion and anger toward the power elites, it was the young men who seemed to suffer more severely. A lack of affordable housing and good jobs have threatened the deeply rooted patriarchal foundations of Korean society.

Men in their 20s and 30s who think of themselves as rarely benefitting from male privileges in Korean society directed their anger toward women. A large number of young Korean men seem to find it uncomfortable and even unfair that men are perceived as a potential perpetrator of gender-based discrimination, and at the same time, as a beneficiary of male bias in the society. They regard women’s advancement as a threat to their own survival, as they face a bleak future of limited job opportunities and rising living costs. Many believe it is actually males who are the victims of gender discrimination.

In Korea, competition in education and job markets is notoriously fierce. Disgruntled men in their 20s find themselves inevitably competing against women who are perceived to be advantaged by gender equality policies and an exemption from compulsory military service. This often blinds them to society’s blatant gender disparities. It explains the changing attitude of young Korean men toward right-wing conservatism, and it has been exploited and fuelled by prominent conservative politicians like Yoon Seok-yul and Lee Jun-seok.

It has been a slightly more than a month since Yoon’s inauguration. Not surprisingly, few women have so far been appointed to high-ranked positions in his administration. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family survives – largely thanks to local elections on 1 June. It would have been untimely for the PPP to completely ignore female voters. But Yoon’s administration and the ruling party appear determined to weaken gender equality policies, while they pursue a heavily conservative agenda, such as greater labour market flexibility policies.

What will be the public response? Will the proponents of gender equality in Korea remain silent in response to this huge political setback?

In the past, South Korean feminism has grown stronger under conservative administrations. If the new conservative government seeks to marginalise and disparage gender equality discourses and policies, the proponents of gender equality will fight back, educating society via civic debate and marshalling their own political power against the government.

Kyounghee Moon is a professor at the Department of International Relations at Changwon National University. She received her PhD in Politics & International Relations from the Australian National University. Her main areas of research are international migration and identity politics, gender politics, and international relations of Korea and Australia.

Banner image: Women protest against unequal pay and discriminatory employment laws in Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul, South Korea - November 10, 2018. Credit: Shutterstock.