South Korea’s presidential race puts misogyny in the spotlight

For years, South Korean women made slow but steady progress in the workplace as they faced an entrenched culture of male chauvinism and harassment. But this extremely tight presidential race, which culminates on March 9, has exposed the fragility of what has been won.

Top conservative candidate Yoon Suk Yeol and his liberal rival Lee Jae-myung – both over 55 – are battling for what they see as a crucial “male” vote for victory. They have increasingly focused their messages on young men who speak out against gender equality policies and the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market.

“Politicians choose the easy way,” Hong said. “Instead of offering real policies to solve the problems facing young people, they are stoking gender conflict, telling men in their twenties that their difficulties come from the fact that women receive too many allowances.”

The tensions are seen in the streets. Hundreds of women marched to protest against “the election of misogyny”. Small but vocal groups of anti-feminist men staged rallies in response.

The politics of gender division has grown as South Korea faces an aging population, plummeting birth rate, soaring personal debt, a decaying job market and strong inequalities. There is also the growing nuclear threat from North Korea and fears of being stuck in the confrontation between the United States and China.

However, no campaign issue has sparked more debate than Yoon’s wish to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs, which the candidate says promotes policies that are unfair to men.

A former attorney general, Yoon, 61, also promised tougher penalties for false reports of sex crimes. Critics say this represents just a small number of rape complaints and the threat of harsher penalties could intimidate victims from coming forward amid a recent male backlash against the #MeToo movement.

Ruling Liberal Party candidate Lee, 57, has taken a cautious approach to gender issues, while clashing with Yoon on North Korea’s economy and politics.

Trailing Yoon narrowly in the polls, Lee has been tipped to appeal to more young men, whose support for conservative candidates in the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections may have led to shocking double defeats for the locals. liberals.

Lee described gender tensions as linked to unemployment and said men should not be discriminated against. He said he plans to keep the Ministry of Gender, but under a different Korean name that no longer includes the word “women.”

Yoon’s campaign was influenced by her party’s chairman, Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old Harvard-educated “men’s rights” advocate who outlines hiring targets for women and other government policies. gender equality as “reverse discrimination”. Lee calls feminist politics “pufferfish poison.”

During a presidential debate on Monday, Yoon repeated an argument that South Korea no longer has structural barriers to women’s success, saying discrimination is now “individual versus individual.”

The World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 102nd out of 156 countries in an index that examines gender gaps in employment, education, health and political representation.

South Korea has by far the largest gender pay gap among developed economies, at around 32%, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and women remain significantly under- represented on boards and in politics. The country’s record birth rate shows how many women find it impossible to balance career and family.

About 80% of South Koreans said there was a lot of gender conflict in their country, according to a survey by IPSOS, a global market research firm.

Removing the ministry of gender equality could weaken women’s rights and “harm democracy”, said Chung Hyun-back, an academic who served as minister of gender equality in 2017-2018, under the current Liberal President Moon Jae-in. It is also a key government department committed to helping single parents, survivors of sexual abuse, and minority and migrant families.

This prospect frustrates Kang Ji-woo, a 36-year-old single mother who once struggled to find a job in a deeply conservative society and receives childcare assistance from the Ministry of Gender Equality. Single mothers in South Korea are sometimes pressured and shamed into having abortions or giving up their children for adoption.

“There are no trustworthy candidates on policies to help the underprivileged,” she said.

South Korean conservatives are galvanizing around a brand of Trump-style ‘identity politics’ that caters almost exclusively to men after years of disarray following the 2017 ousting of the country’s first female president, Park Geun-hye , following a massive corruption scandal, according to Park Won-Ho, a politics professor at Seoul National University.

Yoon taps into the resentment of men in their 20s and 30s who face a sluggish job market while agonizing over soaring house prices and dim prospects for marriage and parenthood. They are increasingly sensitive to competition from women, who often outrank them in school and are more eager to break away from traditional gender roles for career advancement.

Even as many men cling to the idea that their female colleagues have an easier time at work – including being exempted from compulsory 18-month military service – women have begun to criticize a culture of male-centric company that exposes them to harassment, unequal pay and promotions, and often derails their careers after having children.

Hong Eun-pyo, a 39-year-old woman who runs an anti-feminist YouTube channel, justifies higher pay for men, insisting they work longer hours or do more difficult tasks. “If they want to reach the same level as their male counterparts and get the same salary, they have to keep working and not get pregnant,” he said.

Song Tae-woong, an office worker, says young men, worried about a life path that seems more difficult than their fathers, are unhappy with women’s growing complaints about society.

“Our parents’ generation, now in their 50s and 60s, married early and grew step by step,” he said. “People today are…extremely restless.”

Some experts, including Chung, believe politicians are exaggerating the gender grievances of some college-educated middle-class men who have become radicalized on the internet as they compete with women for dwindling numbers of decent jobs.

However, recent surveys show a stark political divide between increasingly conservative young men and their more left-leaning female counterparts, not just on gender issues, but also on the economy and national security, says Park, a professor of politics. This indicates that the Conservatives are successfully mobilizing their young male supporters to support broader agendas, including tougher approaches to North Korea and policies emphasizing economic growth over spending. social. Young women feel largely unrepresented, according to polls.

Lee Ji-young, a teacher who rose to the top of her field in the fiercely competitive tutoring industry, recalls years of verbal and physical sexual harassment and unwanted advances from male colleagues who constantly challenged her. question its competitiveness.

A colleague told him that Korean society was stable in medieval times “because women were calm, but now they have ruined South Korea,” Lee said.

She said she once twisted a male colleague’s wrist when he tried to touch her back.

“Usually women wouldn’t react that way,” Lee said. “I have seen women crying at home or leaving their jobs…because they were afraid of being judged, personally and professionally.”

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