Gender Controversies Hamper South Korean Presidential Race

Contentious moves by leading candidate . . . 

Two young South Korean public figures died by suicide last week. Both victims had been harassed by male-dominated online communities – one a woman maligned for being a misandrist and the other a man harassed that he regularly wore makeup. With many calling for better cyberbullying measures and protections, gender has become a popular debate in South Korea’s upcoming presidential election scheduled for March 9. Among leading candidates, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family if elected. The move is seen as a strategy to win over male voters in their 20s and 30s. A recent poll found that 52 per cent of South Koreans support the decision. The Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has criticized the proposal claiming it creates further gender conflicts. Incumbent DPK President Moon Jae-in is ineligible to run for re-election since the country’s constitution restricts presidents to one five-year term in office.

Anti-feminism continues to snowball . . .

Gender inequality and misogyny are lingering issues in South Korea. Women on average earn one-third less than men, the widest gender wage gap among all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries. The ‘MeToo’ movement, which rose to global prominence in 2017, has made women and gender rights a critically important issue in South Korea in recent years, and for the upcoming election. Other systemic factors have added traction to anti-feminist movements in the country, including South Korea’s mandatory conscription for men but not for women, and a five per cent lower enrolment rate in post-secondary education for men than women.

Lesser of two evils?

In the lead-up to the March elections, political candidates have been expressing their views on gender equality and proposals to combat sex crimes and gender discrimination. Many young male voters are drawn to Yoon’s gender policies because they feel ‘left out’ of equal opportunities, especially in a time of economic precarity and polarization. President Moon insists, meanwhile, that limited opportunities for young people in South Korea are causing both men and women to see themselves as victims of sex-based discrimination. But with high-ranking officials in the liberal bloc facing sexual violence scandals that have turned women away from the party, the DPK – like the conservative PPP – may have difficulty gaining female votes in the March election.