In early October, the South Korean government announced that, in accordance with the campaign pledge of President Yoon Suk-yeol, it intends to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Yoon has faced criticism, domestically and internationally, for using the country’s “anti-feminism” movement as an election strategy to mobilize young men as his key voting bloc. And yet the tactic has proven successful: 58.7 percent of men in their 20s voted for Yoon, while 58 percent of women in their 20s voted for his opponent, showing a striking gender gap. Yoon won the election with a margin of just 0.73 points, making this the closest election in South Korean history.
Yoon has said that women in South Korea do not face structural inequality; however, that assertion is demonstrably false. In addition, a large body of feminist international relations research suggests that rising gender inequality within a nation can undermine its national security.
Understanding the Feminist Backlash in South Korea
While South Korea has experienced miraculous economic development and democratization over the past decades, women’s empowerment in the country has been underachieved. For example, the gender wage gap has remained the largest among OECD countries for the past decade. Women are still underrepresented in the National Assembly as well, holding only 19 percent of seats in 2021. The government has also been criticized for its highly male-dominated cabinet. When asked by a Washington Post reporter about how he would advance gender equality in South Korea, Yoon had difficulty answering.
In such a context, one may be forgiven for wondering how there could be a strong “anti-feminism” movement in South Korea, when so little macro-level progress has been made for women. The explanation lies in the base rate against which we compare. Though the situation of women in South Korea now is not exemplary, it must be compared with the South Korea of 20 or 30 years ago. And in that light, there’s been stunning and speedy improvement in the status of women.
Three decades ago, South Korea suffered from highly abnormal sex ratios. In 1990, the sex ratio at birth was 116.5 males per 100 females. Sons were highly preferred over daughters in patrilineal South Korean society, leading to sex selection. The patriarchal family registry system, Hoju, greatly strengthened the gender discriminatory system by forcing offspring to be registered exclusively under the patrilineal line, with diminished rights for women. The system was finally abolished in 2005 for its violation of constitutional rights to gender equality.
However, this relatively swift improvement in women’s empowerment has not come without cost. Indeed, its very swiftness may be what has sparked a virulent anti-feminism in society (along with its mirror image, the 4B movement of radical feminists that appeared in 2019). The anti-feminist movement has charismatic young male leaders, who have exhorted their followers to punish women for stepping out of their (subordinate) place in Korean society.
Rising violence and harassment against women have been the result. For example, women now must assume that they are being filmed everywhere they go, with cameras (referred to in Korean as molka, short for spy cameras) found in most public toilets and even offices, and upskirting is a daily occurrence for women commuters. Weak punishments on these molka cases led to the “Nth Room” incident, where videos of women being sexually abused and dehumanized were sold for money.
Violence against women is now brazen. In one recent notorious case, a woman in her 20s was murdered in the public toilet in a subway station by her ex-colleague who was already accused of stalking and blackmailing her with molka. While the incident incited an outcry, Minister of Gender Equality and Family Hyun-sook Kim explicitly denied that this was gender-based violence. South Korean women took to the streets in outrage.
Given the outcry, the new president has postponed abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality. But the fate of the ministry is not the only thing Yoon should be worried about.
How Gender Inequality Undermines National Security
South Korea’s U-turn on the value of gender equality is concerning given the research literature on how gender inequality undermines national security. Feminist international relations research has found that the treatment of women is a reliable determinant of violence and conflict within a society. Subordination of women by men and impunity of violence against women leads to the use of force as the preferred method of conflict resolution. This also increases the probability of conflicts between states.
The corpus of literature empirically supporting this relationship between gender equality and security is growing. Political scientists found that societies that tolerate and allow gender-based violence become permeated with norms of violence and therefore are more likely to engage in militarized disputes, have conflictual relations with neighboring countries, and become fragile states. The degree to which women are missing in political decision-making also increases the probability of civil conflict and interstate wars.
Some of these effects are already evident under Yoon’s regime, which has adopted an aggressive and offensive attitude toward North Korea, distancing itself from the previous administration that emphasized a more amicable relationship with North Korea. Yoon has even stressed a “pre-emptive strike” as a solution to protect the peace.
In reaction to the new hostility emanating from Seoul, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan and sent warplanes near South Korea after multiple missile tests. We find it deeply ironic that these events happened in the same week that the Yoon government announced that it would abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality. Feminist IR scholarship suggests this is no coincidence.
Feminist IR research suggests women’s empowerment is the foundation of security and peace. Given that the top agenda item for the ruling People Power Party has been national security, it is lamentable that South Korean women’s voices are unheard, ignored, and silenced.
Women’s empowerment is also the foundation of national survival. South Korea bears the distinction of having the lowest birth rate in the world. This is no coincidence, either. South Korean women are not interested in reproducing a society created by men who hold them in contempt. This may well be the most important national security issue faced by South Korea, but the man who now leads the country seems incapable of addressing it.
The advancement of gender equality in South Korea should arguably be Yoon’s top priority if he truly loves his country.