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  • South Korea has been home to some of Asia’s most powerful feminist campaigns in recent years.
  • But those movements have been met with significant opposition, culminating with the election of President Yoon Suk-yeol on an overtly anti-feminist platform in 2022.
  • Journalist Hawon Jung has tracked both the rise of feminist activism and the subsequent backlash in her new book, Flowers of Fire. Read on to find out how to win an electronic copy.

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When Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president of South Korea last year, he was swept to power on a wave of anti-feminist sentiment. On his path to victory, Yoon capitalised on a growing backlash among young men against what had been one of Asia’s most successful feminist movements. In the years before his shock election, activists had secured great gains for women, from a crackdown on spycam porn to the legalisation of abortion and a reckoning on workplace sexual assault that took down a potential presidential candidate. What went wrong?

In her former role as a journalist in Agence France Presse’s Seoul bureau, Hawon Jung witnessed the rise of South Korea’s new feminist movements and the subsequent backlash against them first-hand. In her new book, Flowers of Fire, she documents the astonishing changes the country has seen over the past five years when it comes to gender, from the moment prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun spoke out about being sexually assaulted on national TV and inadvertently brought the #MeToo movement to South Korea, to the election four years later of a candidate whose major campaign promise was to abolish the country’s gender equality ministry.

Along the way, Jung profiles South Korea’s “loud, raucous” feminist activists, including Seo herself; Witch, a rape survivor who trains women on how to combat allegations of “false accusations” when they come forward about sexual assault; and Park Ji-Hyun and Won Eun-Ji, a pair of college students who uncovered a criminal ring of sexual exploitation chatrooms.

I spoke to Jung about her vibrant portrait of the fight for gender equality in a country that is often off the radar when it comes to global discussions of feminism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Subscribers to the newsletter can win a copy of Flowers of Fire by replying directly to this email. Good luck!

Megan Clement: What were the conditions that led to the #MeToo movement becoming so important in South Korea and having such an impact?

Hawon Jung: Part of the reason is education. South Korea’s women are some of the most educated people in the world. This is a remarkable change compared to even 40 years ago. More than 70% of young women go to college these days, while for their mother’s generation, who came of age in the 80s, it was less than 25%.

So, women were educated and they had this new language to define the gender oppression that women in the country are facing, like “patriarchy”, “sexual discrimination” and “misogyny”. They were also trying to push into all these fields that were previously dominated by men and that their mother’s generation had very little chance of getting into. But at the same time, the male-dominated culture, especially in workplaces and in politics, remained relatively unchanged.  South Korea has recorded the largest gender pay gap among OECD member countries every single year for the past 26 years. And the country has been ranked at the bottom of the Glass Ceiling Index by The Economist every year since the index was created.

After women graduate from college and try to get into wider society – suddenly they are stonewalled by this discrimination and sexism that has changed relatively little. So I think there was a very high level of frustration and a lot of resentment about the system that had been coming up for a lot of women, and #MeToo really gave them a powerful rallying cry, a slogan they could rally behind and voice their frustration about this whole system when they had been holding off for so long.

Megan Clement: Why do you think the backlash has been so significant, including the election of Yoon Suk-yeol on an explicitly anti-feminist platform?

Hawon Jung: There was a level of resentment, especially among young men, because the feminist movements for the past few years were largely led by young women. Among men of the same generation, there was a certain resentment that they were now victims of “reverse discrimination”, or victims of the zeitgeist. The #MeToo movement gave voices to young women and it caused shifts in the country’s gender dynamics that had never been seen before.

There was definitely a sense of resentment among young men, but before, it stayed in cyberspace and never really spilled out of online chat rooms, or what I call male-dominated online communities. But this young member of the right-wing People Power Party saw the rightward shift among a lot of the young men of his generation and he weaponised it into a political brand of his own. His name is Lee Jun-Seok. The party saw how useful it could be to give voice to this generation of young men and make them into a potent voter bloc.

This whole wave of anti-feminist backlash was really vicious in terms of magnitude and it happened so fast, a lot of people in the country were really shocked by what happened.

Megan Clement: It’s absolutely extraordinary. And it’s made me think of a lot of the discussion that’s happening in the US and in Europe at the moment around feminism. With the fall of Roe v Wade and the #MeToo movement winding down, we’ve seen the theory going around that feminists did it wrong, and that the backlash is somehow due to them using the wrong language or the wrong tactics: it’s because we didn’t bring the men along or we didn’t pay attention to the right things, or we were too extreme or too “woke”. Are there similar arguments being made in the South Korean context?

Hawon Jung: I think it’s the same everywhere. When I share the stories about women’s rights issues in South Korea on social media, sometimes I get comments from men in the US or UK, saying “This is the real feminism, unlike the feminazis in our country. This is real women’s activism.” This sounds very familiar because that’s exactly what a lot of men in South Korea say when they see protests in countries like India, when women protest against gender violence or honour killings. They say, “This is genuine feminist activism, unlike what’s happening in South Korea.” And when I ask my friends in India what they think, they say, “We have no shortage of men who are saying exactly the same thing but about Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia”. It’s the same story everywhere — there’s a lot of backlash and pushback by people who use the suffering of women and the struggles of feminists elsewhere as a stick to beat the feminist right next to them with.

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I’m pretty sure there are a lot of things feminists and women’s rights activists could have done better or could have done differently. And there are South Korean women thinking, “What did we do wrong to lead to these things?” But I don’t think it’s entirely the feminists’ fault … It’s a historical pattern. In the history of feminist movements for the past few decades or centuries, there is always a step forward, followed by two steps back, a modicum of progress followed by years of backlash. It happened in the US, it happened in the UK, and now the same pattern is repeating itself in South Korea.

Megan Clement How are the feminist activists you profiled in the book doing? How are they responding to this period of backlash?

Hawon Jung I’m not going to lie, they are going through a difficult time. It’s tough times for everyone. Some of them lost their jobs, some of them found their support base weakening over the past year.

For instance, Seo Ji-hyun, the prosecutor — after she came forward, she became the coordinator of gender policy at the justice ministry and played a pivotal role in bringing in a lot of landmark legal changes, such as raising the age of consent and laws to fight digital sex crimes. She founded a very important technical team with a group of experts, including two former college journalists who had uncovered sextortion crimes. But after the new administration came to power, she was forced to quit her job. She has left the justice ministry, and the task force team against digital sex crimes also fizzled out.

Some sexual assault victims now say they are too afraid to come forward. That’s what I have heard from some of the advocates for women’s rights issues, including Witch. The anti-feminist backlash is really taking a toll.

Megan Clement: You’ve written in The New York Times, and also in your book, about how women are going on “birth strike” despite the fact that South Korea’s fertility rate is very low. Is that one of the protests that women have left in a time of such backlash – to refuse to take part in the business of reproductive labour?

Hawon Jung: To be fair, this trend has been going on for quite some time. South Korea’s birth rate has been going down nearly non-stop for more than a decade now. The reason is a lot of the disproportionate burden of domestic duties and childcare on married women in South Korean families that is so deeply ingrained. And there is relentless discrimination in South Korean workplaces against working mums and married women.

Part of the refusal to get married or to give birth is that it’s a desperate survival strategy. When companies discriminate against women or set them aside from opportunities for promotion or even during the recruitment process, one of the common excuses they come up with is that women are not going to be able to clock in longer hours once they get married or once they have a child. So a lot of women are like, “OK, then we are not going to marry, we are not going to have a child. How about that?”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the sexism in workplaces will disappear for them. A lot of women face the pressure to quit or be sidelined from promotional activities in their 40s because most senior managers think that men [need those opportunities] as family breadwinners. But at least they survive or to in their 40s, and that may not be the case if they marry and give birth in their 30s. Young women are pushed up against family customs and patriarchal traditions that refuse to change and have failed to evolve in the same way that women’s world-views have evolved over the years.

Megan Clement: I ask everybody I interview a version of this question: we know that feminist activism is very hard work and can be quite dangerous and there’s always a risk of brutal backlash, which is exactly what we’re seeing now in South Korea. What keeps the activists who you profile going in the face of how difficult it all is? And what keeps you going in the work that you do?

Hawon Jung:  A lot of [the women] said that they’re not doing this because they want to, but because it was impossible not to do anything. For the prosecutor who ignited the #MeToo movement, it took her eight years after the sexual assault to come forward. She said she really didn’t want to do this, going on live TV to say that to the whole nation — no one wants to do that. But she said that it was impossible, and she just couldn’t take it any more.

For Witch, the rape victim turned activist, after after she came forward on social media and made her name as an activist, she said she was seeing other women who had absolutely no hope previously saying, “My life has changed thanks to you”. And they’re paying it forward. Despite everything, there is this sense of hope that if they work, if they start acting, however small the changes they make, no matter how insignificant they seem from the outside, that sense of hope is what they keep fighting for.

As for the thing that keeps me going — I am a feminist, but before being a feminist I am a journalist, and I followed this feminist movement because I saw it was a story worth telling. This is a lesser-known side of a country that is externally more known for geopolitics or technology or culture. This was a story that a lot of people outside the country might find inspiration from, especially in this day and age, when a lot of people are finding influence from what people in other countries were doing, whether that was black protests against the abortion ban in Poland, or the #NiUnaMenos activism in Latin America, or #metooinceste in France. I thought that maybe this book and the stories of these women could do the same for women in other parts of the world.

I think it’s amazing how women in different parts of the world can influence each other, especially given that stories of Asian women and Asian feminists seem to be very alone in the West. In the global conversations about feminism, the stories of these women in Asia seemed to be relatively overlooked and mainly untold.

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Impact is a weekly newsletter of feminist journalism, dedicated to the rights of women and gender-diverse people worldwide. Every month, we publish a wrap of the latest news on women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights, an in-depth interview with a leading thinker or activist, an investigative feature, and an essay from our editor.

This is the English version of our newsletter; you can read the French one here.

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Impact is edited and often written by Megan Clement. It is translated by Anna Pujol-Mazzini. Agustina Ordoqui writes the monthly news wrap and our regular news updates on social media.

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