Health

The new political cry in South Korea: ‘out with man haters’

“Out with
man haters!” they shouted. “Feminism is a mental illness!”

On the
streets, such rallies would be easy to dismiss as the extreme rhetoric of a
fringe group. But the anti-feminist sentiments are being amplified online,
finding a vast audience that is increasingly imposing its agenda on South
Korean society and politics.

These male
activists have targeted anything that smacks of feminism, forcing a university
to cancel a lecture by a woman they accused of spreading misandry. They have
vilified prominent women, criticizing An San, a three-time gold medalist in the
Tokyo Olympics, for her short haircut.

They have
threatened businesses with boycotts, prompting companies to pull advertisements
with the image of pinching fingers they said ridiculed the size of male
genitalia. And they have taken aim at the government for promoting a feminist
agenda, eliciting promises from rival presidential candidates to reform the
country’s 20-year-old Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

South Korea
is reckoning with a new type of political correctness enforced by angry young
men who bristle at any forces they see as undermining opportunity — and feminists,
in their mind, are enemy No 1. Inequality is one of the most delicate issues in
South Korea, a nation with deepening economic uncertainty, fed by runaway
housing prices, a lack of jobs and a widening income gap.

“We don’t
hate women, and we don’t oppose elevating their rights,” said Bae In-kyu, 31,
the head of Man on Solidarity, one of the country’s most active anti-feminist
groups. “But feminists are a social evil.”

The group
spearheads the street rallies and runs a YouTube channel with 450,000
subscribers. To its members, feminists equal man haters.

Its motto
once read, “Till the day all feminists are exterminated!”

The backlash
against feminism in South Korea may seem bewildering.

South Korea
has the highest gender wage gap among the wealthy countries. Less than
one-fifth of its national lawmakers are women. Women make up only 5.2 percent
of the board members of publicly listed businesses, compared with 28 percent in
the United States.

And yet,
most young men in the country argue that it is men, not women, in South Korea
who feel threatened and marginalized. Among South Korean men in their 20s,
nearly 79 percent said they were victims of serious gender discrimination,
according to a poll in May.

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“There is a
culture of misogyny in male-dominant online communities, depicting feminists as
radical misandrists and spreading fear of feminists,” said Kim Ju-hee, 26, a nurse
who has organised protests denouncing anti-feminists.

The wave of
anti-feminism in South Korea shares many of the incendiary taglines with
right-wing populist movements in the West that peddle such messages. Women who
argue for abortion rights are labeled “destroyers of family.” Feminists are not
champions of gender equality, but “female supremacists.”

In South
Korea, “women” and “feminists” are two of the most common targets of online
hate speech, according to the country’s National Human Rights Commission.

The backlash
represents a split from previous generations.

Older South
Korean men acknowledge ​benefiting from a patriarchal culture that​ had​
marginalized women. Decades ago, when South Korea lacked everything from food
to cash, sons were more likely to be enrolled in higher education. In some
families, women were not allowed to eat from the same table as men and newly
born girls were named Mal-ja, or “Last Daughter.” Sex-preference abortions were
common.

As the
country has grown richer, such practices have become a distant memory. Families
now dote on their daughters. More women attend college than men, and
opportunities in the government and elsewhere are no longer rare, though a
significant glass ceiling persists.

“Men in
their 20s are deeply unhappy, considering themselves victims of reverse
discrimination, angry that they had to pay the price for gender discriminations
created under the earlier generations,” said Oh Jae-ho, a researcher at the
Gyeonggi Research Institute in South Korea.

If older men
saw women as needing protection, younger men considered them competitors in a
cutthroat job market.

Anti-feminists
often note that men are put at a disadvantage because they have to delay
getting jobs to complete their mandatory military service. But many women drop
out of the workforce after giving birth, and much of the domestic duties fall
to them.

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“What more
do you want? We gave you your own space in the subway, bus, parking lot,” the
male rapper San E writes in his 2018 song “Feminist,” which has a cult
following among young anti-feminists. “Oh girls don’t need a prince! Then pay
half for the house when we marry.”

The gender
wars have infused the South Korean presidential race, largely seen as a contest
for young voters. With the virulent anti-feminist voice surging, no major
candidate is speaking out for women’s rights, once such a popular cause that
President Moon Jae-in called himself a “feminist” when he campaigned about five
years ago.

Yoon
Suk-yeol, the candidate of the conservative opposition People Power Party,
sided with the anti-feminist movement when he accused the ministry of gender
equality of treating men like “potential sex criminals.” He promised harsher
penalties for wrongfully accusing men of sex crimes, despite concerns it would
discourage women from speaking out.

But Yoon
also recruited a prominent 31-year-old leader of a feminist group as a senior
campaign adviser last month, a move intended to assuage worries that his party
has alienated young female voters.

By law, Moon
cannot seek reelection. His Democratic Party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has
also tried to appeal to young men, saying: “Just as women should never be
discriminated against because of their gender, nor should men suffer
discrimination because they are men.”

Lee sees the
gender conflict largely as a problem of dwindling job opportunities, comparing
young South Koreans to “chicks struggling not to fall off a crowded nest.” “We
must make the nest bigger by recovering growth,” he has said.

It is hard
to tell how many young men support the kind of extremely provocative​ and often
theatrical​ activism championed by groups like Man on Solidarity. Its firebrand
leader, Bae, showed up at a recent feminist rally​​ dressed as the Joker from
“Batman” comics and toting a toy water gun. He followed female protesters
around, pretending to, as he put it, “kill flies.”

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Tens of
thousands of fans have watched his stunts livestreamed online, sending in cash
donations. During one online talk-fest in August, Bae raised 9 million won
($7,580) in three minutes.

Women’s
rights advocates fear that the rise of anti-feminism might stymie, or even roll
back, the hard-won progress South Korea has made in expanding women’s rights.
In recent decades, they fought to legalize abortion and started one of the most
powerful #MeToo campaigns in Asia.

Lee Hyo-lin,
29, said that “feminist” has become such a dirty word that women who wear their
hair short or carry a novel by a feminist writer risk ostracism. When she was a
member of a K-pop group, she said that male colleagues routinely commented on
her body, jeering that she “gave up being a woman” when she gained weight.

“The #MeToo
problem is part of being a woman in South Korea,” she said. “Now we want to
speak out, but they want us to shut up. It’s so frustrating.”

On the other
side of the culture war are young men with a litany of grievances — concerns
that are endlessly regurgitated by male-dominated forums. They have fixated, in
particular, on limited cases of false accusations, as a way to give credence to
a broader anti-feminist agenda.

Son Sol-bin,
a used-furniture seller, was 29 when his former girlfriend accused him of rape
and kidnapping in 2018. Online trolls called for his castration, he said. His
mother found closed-circuit TV footage proving the accusations never took
place.

“The
feminist influence has left the system so biased against men that the police
took a woman’s testimony and a mere drop of her tears as enough evidence to
land an innocent man in jail,” said Son, who spent eight months in jail before
he was cleared. “I think the country has gone crazy.”

As Son
fought back tears during a recent anti-feminist rally, other young men chanted:
“Be strong! We are with you!”

© The New
York Times Company

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