SEOUL: This file photo taken on August 20, 2020 shows people wearing face masks as they prepare to cross a street in Seoul. South Korea has the highest gender wage gap in the OECD club of developed countries. - AFP

SEOUL: Condemnation of quotas for women, vilification of a short-haired Olympic gold medallist, and calls to abolish the gender ministry itself: a backlash against feminism is on the rise in South Korea-with even presidential candidates joining in. While South Korea is the world's 12th-largest economy and a leading technological power, it remains a male-dominated society with a poor record on women's rights.

That has been challenged in recent years, with young women fighting to legalize abortion and organizing a widespread #MeToo and anti-spycam movement that led to the largest women's rights demonstrations in Korean history. At their most militant some campaigners have vowed to never marry, have children, or even have sex with men, while others have gone viral smashing up their make-up products on video in protest against the country's demanding beauty standards.

Ferocious online campaigns

Now a fierce reaction is spreading online. Members of anti-feminist groups, often right-wing, have even bullied triple Olympic champion An San during the Tokyo Games for having short hair, and demanded she hand back her medals and apologize. One such group's YouTube channel has drawn more than 300,000 subscribers since its foundation in February, and their online campaigns can be ferocious.

And leading mainstream conservative politicians-including two presidential contenders-have seized on the wider anti-feminist sentiment with pledges to abolish the gender ministry. Critics accuse the department of "deepening" the country's social tensions, with young men claiming equality policies fail to address issues that affect men. They say it is especially unreasonable that only South Korean men have to perform near two-year compulsory military service, delaying their career starts in a highly competitive society, while women are exempt.

Lawmaker Ha Tae-keung, who is seeking presidential nomination by the conservative opposition People's Power Party (PPP), says the ministry is obsolete and told AFP that it needed to be disbanded to reduce the "enormous social cost caused by conflict over gender issues". In an earlier television appearance, he told broadcaster MBC: "It's like a zombie-the ministry's still around although it's already dead, and that's why it's only creating adverse effects."

'Backlash to progress'

Sharon Yoon, a Korean studies professor at University of Notre Dame in the US, said: "What we are seeing now is a very powerful backlash to all of the progress that feminist movements in Korea have made in the past few years." Lee Jun-seok, the PPP's 36-year-old leader, has established himself as one of the most popular politicians among the country's young men.

He has repeatedly said he is against gender quotas and "radical feminism", and that the gender equality and family ministry needs to be scrapped. Lee, who has been compared by some to former US president Donald Trump for his at times divisive rhetoric, insists the country's young women no longer face discrimination in education, nor in the early career job market.

"Through novels and movies women in their 20s and 30s have developed an unfounded victim mentality that they are being discriminated against," Lee told the Korea Economic Daily. Jinsook Kim, a University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral fellow, said politicians were exploiting the resentments of frustrated men to try to secure their votes. Nowadays, she added, "some of these men see themselves as victims of feminism", for example because of affirmative action.

Loss of privileges

The reaction comes against a backdrop of stuttering economic growth, rising inequality and soaring housing prices leaving many Koreans despairing of ever buying a home of their own. Oh Jae-ho of Gyeonggi Research Institute pointed out that female participation in the workforce-and hence competition-had risen over recent decades while military service remained men-only.

"Young men feel that they are being unfairly asked to compensate for the sexist privileges enjoyed by men in the older generation." Those privileges are longstanding: the South has the highest gender wage gap in the OECD club of developed countries, while women do 2.6 times as much unpaid domestic work as men. Only 5.2 percent of Korean conglomerates' board members are female.

Spycams, revenge porn

The country has also witnessed a disturbing rise in spycam and revenge porn crimes. But women's activist Ahn So-jung said that politicians were "denying institutional discrimination exists against women". "And they are dismissing women who voice concerns about women's rights as a source of gender conflict," she added.

Founded in 2001, the gender ministry has played a role in the abolition of the South's discriminatory hoju system, which saw children registered exclusively under the patriarchal line. It has also set up an agency to help single mothers collect child support, and implemented programs for working mothers and immigrant wives. Minister Chung Young-ai pleaded for it to continue: "The improvement of women's rights so far has been possible because our ministry existed." - AFP