On Feminism in South Korea

Post-it Notes with Condolences outside the Gangnam Station, Seoul, after the Murder of a Young Woman. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Hadley Kim

A popular singer uploads a photo of herself wearing a T-shirt that reads, “We Should All Be Feminists,” sparking a debate on social media on whether or not she is making a social statement in support of the feminist movement.

Another takes a picture displaying her phone case with the words “Girls Can Do Anything,” leading to backlash from Korean netizens on speculation that she is a feminist. She deletes the photo shortly after. 

Such incidents are not isolated in South Korea, a country ranked 108 in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum based on an observation of the following four subindices: economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. A book Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982, touted as one of the most influential books for the South Korean feminist movement, further describes the everyday struggles of women in Korea due to rampant misogyny and sexism. Furthermore, when the cinematization of the book was announced in 2018, opposition rose in the form of a petition requesting President Moon Jae-In to prevent the movie’s release. Even the Instagram Account of the actress, Jung Yu-Mi, who was cast in the titular role, was inundated with hate comments. Reviews following the movie’s release were deeply polarized between men and women, with the former averaging a 3.00/10.00 rating on Naver Movies, a popular movie review website in Korea, and the latter 9.46/10.00. 

These results play into the larger sentiments shared by Korean men in their 20s that they are being left behind amidst traction gained by the feminist movement. Groups such as the Dang Dang We, created to “[fight] for justice for men,” congregate to share their view that “feminism is no longer about gender equality… [but] gender discrimination.” Some men have even expressed their opposition to the #MeToo movement, disagreeing that women face discrimination and disadvantages in modern Korea. 

Even so, similar attitudes towards feminists and the feminist movement are not limited to men, partly due to the type of feminism the Korean public is exposed to. South Korea’s feminist movement is spearheaded by radical feminist groups such as the online communities of the Womad (a combination of the word ‘woman’ and ‘nomad’) and Megalia. The latter gained national attention for their “mirroring” policies, where members actively ‘mirrored’ comments frequently made by men towards women, often with harsh language, and took controversial steps of outing gay men who are married to women in South Korea. These have led to accusations of misandry and female chauvinism towards the said groups and the larger feminist movement in South Korea. The links have even resulted in Korean women distancing themselves from the movement for fear of being associated with misandrist ideologies.In fact, the word “femi,” a shortened version of the term feminist, is used in a derogatory fashion by both sexes alike, highlighting not only the radical nature of publicized feminist groups in the nation, but the skepticism received by the movement as a whole.

However, in recent years, feminism in South Korea has slowly been evolving away from the radical policies pushed by the two mainstream feminist groups. The nation is currently living in the shadow of two events –  the Gangnam murder case, in which a man stabbed a woman in a public bathroom to avengefor all the times he had been ignored by women and the “Nth Room” Case, a cyber sex-trafficking case involving the buying and selling videos of men sexually exploting and abusing women. The events sparked universal outrage throughout the nation and in response hundreds of post-its and chrysanthemums were left near Gangnam station in mourning and petitions demanding the culprits of the Nth Ro1m case have their identity revealed were widely circulated online. While the Gangnam murder case did see several counter-protests by men holding up signs that read “Not all men are potential murderers” and “the crime was not misogynist,” the Nth Room petition was received 2 million signatures by both sexes, an act of solidarity in stark contrast to the mirroring policies used by so-called feminist groups that pit men and women against each other. There has also been a significant move toward peaceful protests by the feminist movement, as evidenced by a 2018 march through Seoul against the proliferation of spy cameras used to invade women’s privacy.  

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that South Korea faces a divided feminist movement, with clashes in both its principles and practice. At the same time, it faces an evolving movement. The Nth Room and Gangnam murder case have highlighted the urgency for a reexamination of misogyny and gender inequality in the economically advanced but socially conservative nation while also demonstrating the public’s willingness to engage in these discussions. With the investigation on the Nth Room Case ongoing and the rise of the Women’s Party heightening public attention towards women’s rights issues, it seems that the conversation is only beginning. 

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