An Epic Battle Between Feminism And Deep-Seated Misogyny Is Under Way In South Korea

Unattainable ideals.
Unattainable ideals.
EPAJeon Heonkyun

Seoul, South Korea

Last September, the Korean edition of Maxim, a men’s magazine, ran a cover showing Kim Byeong-ok, an actor who starred in cult favorite film “Oldboy,” posing with a cigarette in his hand next to a car. A pair of woman’s legs, bound at the ankles, was sticking out of the trunk. The headline read “The Real Bad Guy.”

A newly-formed online feminist group called Megalia immediately shared the cover with media outlets and feminist groups around the world. The ensuing uproar forced Maxim US to issue an apology.

Megalia’s online activism was a bold step in a country where women continue to face discrimination at home, in the workplace, and on the streets. Yet as more women push against deep-set conservative attitudes in Korea, the backlash has been vicious. Young Korean men, who no longer enjoy the same economic security and position of power in society, are virtually, and literally, taking their frustrations out on women.

“The gender war in Korea is quite bad, especially among the younger generation,” says Katharine Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Men feel that they are swallowing water, that they are just flailing in a sea that is changing upon them.”

A matter of economics

Like social change elsewhere, the war between the sexes in Korea has its roots in economics. As Korea’s economy grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, many men had stable, well-paying jobs. Women were expected to stay at home and, with husbands in good jobs, they could afford to do so. That allowed the hoju system, which by law stated that a man was the head of the household, to survive–it wasn’t abolished until 2005 (paywall).

In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis upended the stability of the Korean “salaryman.” Many men who lost their jobs started to compete with women for work. “A lot of the negative stereotypes about women, a lot of very gendered labels, started appearing in the early 2000s,” says James Turnbull, a long-time resident in the southern city of Busan who writes about feminism.

Today, Korea’s economy (paywall) is floundering once again. A global economic slowdown has hit the country’s export-driven economy hard, in particular the shipping and shipbuilding industries, which are massively important to Korea. Giant conglomerates called chaebols are also troubled, and hiring fewer people. Household debt is growing and as a percentage of GDP, is among the highest in the developed world.

Meanwhile, Koreans in general have become overqualified for the available jobs. With a higher proportion of people going to college in Korea than in any other OECD country, many well-educated people are in dire need of work, and many who do find work are only able to secure temporary jobs. Youth unemployment is running at close to 10%, about three times the national average. Young men and women, who might cooperate and marry in more plentiful times, instead fiercely compete for the few good positions available.

“Young people are very frustrated, especially men, if they compare their lives to that of their parents’ generation,” says Lee Mi-jeong, a research fellow at the Korea Women’s Development Institute. “That frustration is projected onto women.”

A new feminist movement

Much of this antipathy simmered below the surface until Megalia appeared on the scene, and the story of its creation shows how extensive and bitter tensions in Korea have become. The group has its roots in the May 2015 outbreak in Korea of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, a disease which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The outbreak was linked to two Korean women, who apparently contracted it while traveling on a flight from Seoul to Hong Kong for a holiday.

After they refused to be quarantined in Hong Kong, critics on a popular Korean message board called DC Inside (similar to Reddit in the US) viciously attacked the women, calling them selfish and saying they damaged Korea’s reputation abroad. While the women were later led into quarantine, the online chatter devolved, with many calling them “Kimchi bitches,” for women who are obsessed with wealth, and “doenjang girl” or “bean paste girl,” a reference to young women who save for luxury goods by skimping on essential goods (doenjang being a cheap kind of stew).

Angry at the MERS accusations, some women responded by posting messages on the same message board, adopting a controversial practice female activists call “mirroring,” or mimicking the language men use against women. They called men “kimchi men,” among other epithets, and mocked them for having “6.9cm penises.”

These women broke out of DC Inside to create their own site and was born. It was an instant provocation: The logo of the site shows a hand with the thumb and index finger close together to suggest a small penis.

Many, including some feminists, say Megalia’s tactics have opened the group up to accusations of misandry, and exacerbate the gender wars. Controversial Megalia beliefs and actions include outing gay men who are married to women. Megalia members are referred to by men online as “crazy bitches” who are “completely dedicated to hating the opposite gender,” and some men even compare to Megalia to ISIL.

But members of the group are embracing the upheaval. “Before that, feminism was very boring and academic in Korea,” says a Megalia activist, a graduate of the elite Ewha Women’s University in Seoul who works for a foreign company and who spoke to Quartz on the condition of anonymity. “2015 was an incredible year.”

Murder, Gangnam style

Online activism by Megalia and others has been, to some extent, a response to the reality of increasing violence against women. In May, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed and killed in Gangnam, a district home to some of the country’s biggest and swankiest office buildings, stores, and nightclubs, as she was leaving a bathroom in a building near Gangnam subway’s exit 10, an area as busy as New York’s Times Square or London’s Oxford Street.

The killer, a 34 year-old man, told police he committed the crime because he had been mistreated by women in the past.

Women swarmed to the subway exit in the following days to pay tribute to the victim by sticking Post-its with messages on walls and holding discussions about misogyny. Men’s rights groups staged counter-protests, according to women who had attended the memorials, declaring that labeling the crime as a misogynistic act simply encouraged discrimination against men.

South Korean Gender Minister Kang Eun-hee looks at Post-it messages on the wall of a subway exit in Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea, 20 May 2016, which citizens left to mourn the brutal murder of a 23-year-old woman in an alleged hate crime.
South Korean Gender Minister Kang Eun-hee looks at Post-it messages on the wall of a subway exit in Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea, 20 May 2016, which citizens left to mourn the brutal murder of a 23-year-old woman in an alleged hate crime.

The Gangnam murder highlighted the deeper problem of sexual violence against women, which government-backed KWDI defines as rape, non-consensual touching and taking intimate photos or videos without consent. KWDI statistics show that rates of sexual violence in Korea have shot up in the past few years—the data does not distinguish between male and female, but the group says the victims are overwhelmingly female. Lee, the research fellow, says the increase can only partly be explained by the fact that more women are prepared to come forward about abuse than in the past.

While overall crime and homicide rates in Korea remain very low, more women in Korea are murdered than men, which is unusual in a developed country, says Turnbull. The United Nations singles out Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea as places with some of the lowest homicide rates in the world but where the share of male and female victims is near parity, with intimate partner violence also an acute problem in Japan (pdf, p.54-56).

“The proportion of homicides that happen in a relationship in Korea is very high,” says KWDI’s Lee. “Men have enormous power in the Confucian tradition. Beating wives was considered a way of discipline.”

Song Ran-hee, secretary general of the Korea Women’s Hotline, a non-profit group that provides counseling and shelter services to women in need, says that though no official statistics are kept on this, her group’s research shows that about one woman is murdered by an intimate partner or ex-partner every three days in Korea.

“We don’t have guns, but it’s more dangerous in the home,” says Song with a wry laugh. “The notion that Korea is safe only applies to the streets.”

Stalking and revenge porn

Even the act of breaking up with their boyfriends is a decision fraught with danger in Korea, young women say. Crimes by intimate partners have been on the rise in recent years, after a particularly gruesome murder last year of a woman by her boyfriend when she tried to break up with him.

“There is something called ‘safe breakup’ (anjeon ibeol) that girls talk about in Korea,” says Kim Ha-young, a 23-year-old activist and member of Femidea, an online group that translates foreign feminist articles into Korean. Several women told Quartz that fears of being stalked, verbally abused, or having secretly filmed videos or photos leaked by an ex are widespread. An article this year in magazine Chosun Weekly (link in Korean) titled “Five things I want to tell my daughter about breaking up safely” listed tips such as “don’t say goodbye in a private place alone,” and “threaten to call the police if he stalks you.”

The denigration of women is reflected in Korea’s thriving porn industry and the media in general. While pornography is illegal in Korea, a flood of illicitly filmed images of women are available on popular online platforms like Ilbe, a sort of Korean 4chan that leans toward a right-wing ideology.

One feminist group (link in Korean), RPO, which stands for “revenge-porn out,” dedicates itself to taking down websites that host content such as upskirt photos, secretly filmed video tapes taken by men of women, and even live rape videos, according to Yena, (not her real name), a member of RPO at a recent gathering of feminists in the city of Asan, just south of Seoul.

In one major victory for feminists,, an illegal site that hosted upskirt photos and other voyeuristic images and videos, was shut down this year after public pressure and intense campaigning by online feminist groups. The site also hosted discussions inviting men to rape their unconscious girlfriends, and instructions on how to buy date rape drugs.

Song from Korea Women’s Hotline says that TV dramas “romanticize violence between men and women,” as she grabbed one wrist with her other hand and made a gesture of pushing someone against the wall. “That’s portrayed as being romantic.”

Women speak of the infantilization of beauty ideals in Korean pop culture that are at once also hypersexual. Plastic surgery is widespread, even encouraged by some parents, where looks are vital to getting ahead.

An ad for plastic surgery in a subway station in Seoul showing a woman holding her résumé post surgery.
An ad for plastic surgery in a subway station in Seoul showing a woman holding her résumé post surgery.
Kim Hayoung

A growing men’s rights movement

While women have gained some power and independence in Korea, a preference for male children in the 1970s and 1980s has resulted in an excess of men–and the disparity in numbers contributes to tensions. In 1990, thanks to the availability of selective abortion, Korea’s sex ratio at birth was 116.5, meaning 116.5 boys were born per 100 girls, a ratio that since has evened out (paywall). Many of those 1990 male babies are now grown men unable to find girlfriends and wives, says Turnbull. At the same time, more Korean women are choosing not to marry at all.

Speaking up for men’s rights isn’t a fringe idea in Korea—it has become mainstream. “What’s striking about the current situation is the extent to which… men seem to be feeling very comfortable in saying that women’s demands for greater rights or greater protection are misguided,” says Koo Se-woong, a former university teacher and managing editor of liberal news site Korea Expose.

In one extreme display of men’s rights, in 2013, the heavily indebted founder of men’s activism group Man of Korea (link in Korean), Song Jae-gi, decided to jump off a bridge to raise money for his group. TV cameras were present as he readied to throw himself into the Han River. Among the goals of Man of Korea was the abolishment of the government’s agency the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, and compensation for Korean men who served in the military (all Korean men must serve two years in the army). His body was found a few days later.

Song’s group is now known as NGO for Gender Equality (link in Korean), whose Facebook page has 35,000 likes. One representative from the group, interviewed after the Gangnam murder, said that while the economic situation for men has worsened compared to that of their fathers’ generation, women are getting ahead because of “reverse discrimination,” even as men are still expected to assume the role of breadwinner.

Other members also support abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, because they say its support for single-parent families is promoting divorce. “The divorce rate is so high these days… women usually get child custody rights, and then they will get money from the government as well as from the husband,” Jong Chan Lee wrote in May on the group’s Facebook page (link in Korean).

No country for working women

Despite protests from men that women’s progress in society is usurping their traditional economic role, women are nowhere near parity in the workplace. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, Korea ranked 115th out of 145 countries—below Liberia, the Maldives, and Burkina Faso, and just above Zambia. In the “economic participation and opportunity” category, Korea ranked just 125th. College educated women make about 66% what college educated men make on average each month, according to data from the KWDI. The median wage gap between men and women in Korea is the worst among OECD countries, at 36.7% in 2014.

Many women drop out of the work force in Korea at the age of 25, according to OECD data. Kim Ha-rin, a 19 year-old philosophy student who works part-time at McDonald’s, says that some of her colleagues are middle-aged women who were encouraged to quit their jobs after they got pregnant decades ago and now can only get low-wage work. According to KWDI, 40.2% of “irregular” workers in Korea (paywall)—people working short-term contract jobs that do not receive full benefits—were women, compared to 26.5% for men. While it’s illegal in Korea to outright fire pregnant employees, nurses working in hospitals were only allowed to get pregnant according to a pre-determined order, according to media reports in 2014.

For many women, that means it’s a choice between having a career or getting married and starting a family—a worry for the Korean government at a time when boosting the birth rate is a national emergency. Korea’s birth rate was 1.24 in 2015, according to Statistics Korea, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. In Japan, the birth rate has slowly recovered in recent years due to a series of initiatives to improve childcare and corporate culture.

“The (fertility) crisis is putting a lot of burden on women. The government has rolled out campaigns to try to incentivize women to have more children, but at the same time the government and society send mixed messages that maybe women should not be so ambitious and try to have more babies,” says Moon.

Girls do not need a prince

It’s unlikely that Korea’s gender wars will dissipate any time soon. Not long ago, a female employee at Nexon, a large gaming company, was fired fromher job as a voice actress for sharing a photo of her wearing a Megalia-designed shirt with the slogan “Girls do not need a Prince.” In response, the opposition Justice Party openly criticized Nexon for infringing on the woman’s labor rights.

Some party members, however, found this more humiliating than being labeled North Korea sympathizers and quit the party, one member told JoongAng Daily. “Megalia has done wonders for bringing attention to feminism,” says Koo. But “Megalia is to feminism what North Korea is to opposition activists—it’s a scarlet letter, a very useful tool for shutting up feminists.”

Days later, the party retracted its support for the Nexon employee, and said that instead, it would “lead a discussion to create effective ways of overcoming sexual discrimination issues.”

This article originally appeared on Quartz.

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