On March 9th, Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s former chief prosecutor, was elected as the next president in the country’s tightest presidential race yet. Yoon beat his opponent, Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea, by merely 0.08%. Leading up to Mar. 9, most polls had already hinted that the approval rating for Yoon was surpassing Lee’s by several percentage points.
This conservative lead is deeply curious, given recent electoral history. For one, the last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and removed from office on corruption charges. Additionally, the current liberal Democratic president Moon Jae-in is perceived to have had one of the most successful presidential campaigns, with an approval rating of 42%. From these trends, one might have expected continued liberal leadership to continue within South Korea.
Then, why is it that so many voters suddenly preferred to swing back to conservative leadership?
One major answer lies in Korea’s burgeoning anti-feminist movement, driven predominantly by young South Korean men who see themselves as victims of feminism. These young men believe that feminism has granted women preferential treatment within Korea’s hypercompetitive employment market, creating female supremacy rather than gender equality.
The competitive environment underlying their hostility has not always existed in Korea. In 1997, an unprecedented economic crisis restructured Korean job security. This made long-term, stable employment inaccessible to many Koreans. Consequently, young Korean men ignore the social dynamics of sexism and instead blame women for their economic hardships.
Anti-feminist male activists have taken root in a variety of spaces, from university lecture halls to business fronts, chanting their popular slogans of “out with man-haters” and “feminism is a mental illness.” Beyond the borders of South Korea, this misogynistic sentiment has manifested in the most unlikely corners of current affairs — notably, the Tokyo Olympics.
An San, a South Korean archer who won two gold medals at the Olympics, was the target of misogynistic online abuse. Young male anti-feminists online accused An of being a feminist because of her short hairstyle. They then called for An’s gold medals to be revoked on account of her perceived feminist status. This incident is a clear example of how these activists are clearly proactive in their campaign against any semblance of feminism.
These anti-feminists have been further enabled by conservative party leader Lee Jun-seok, whose Harvard-educated background gives his platform significant credibility in a society that highly values elite education. Lee’s popularity in the conservative People Power Party (PPP) is largely due to his outspokenness against the Democratic Party’s “fixation on a pro-woman agenda” and advocacy for male victimhood, which has resonated with certain groups — namely young Korean men.
In South Korea’s hyper-competitive world of education and employment, Lee is a beacon for these young Korean men who believe they are losing opportunities due to affirmative action. Of course, this framing is far from the truth, as South Korea was ranked 102nd out of 156 countries by the World Economic Forum regarding the gender pay gap. However, this has not changed the fact that young men who believe themselves victims of feminism are increasingly twisting publicly available evidence for their own political agenda.
In electoral politics specifically, these misogynistic sentiments had extensive impacts on the outcome of the recent elections. Anti-feminist young men flocked to Yoon following his promise to eliminate the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Yoon’s statements that the ministry “treated men as potential criminals” resonated with anti-feminist young men’s ideas of victimhood.
The effect of this political promise was evident in the polls, as Yoon’s ratings jumped 6% after his statement. Lee Jae-myung, on the other hand, took a more neutral approach to gender issues. He ceded any promises to eliminate the ministry, yet still attempted to appease anti-feminists by acknowledging male discrimination and promising to remove the word “women” from the ministry’s official Korean-language title. Both candidates have failed to defend feminism, recognizing that the electoral force of the young misogynists is undeniable.
In fact, Yoon had already realized this in December of 2021. In order to appeal to young women voters, Yoon vocalized support for prominent Korean feminists. However, he quickly lost his polling lead, falling behind Lee by 10%, as well as the support of Lee Jun-seok, who had been working on his campaign.
Recognizing that young men are a key voter base, Yoon quickly reversed his decision, re-welcoming Lee onto his campaign and opting for a strict approach against feminism. This sudden pivot makes one thing clear: Yoon knew anti-feminists would be key in the South Korean presidential elections. Indeed, they were. According to an exit poll, 59% of men in their 20s and 53% of men in their 30s voted for Yoon.
What does this mean for the future of women in Korea?
These misogynistic views have serious, real-life consequences. Sexual harassment and violent crimes against women are rife in the workplace and beyond. Korean police accounts reveal that 98% of victims in sexual violence cases and over half of all homicide victims are women. Such numbers most likely do not account for the women who do not come forward with allegations due to a fear of workplace or social consequences. These harsh realities motivated the explosive start of the #MeToo campaign in Korea in 2018, which subsequently marked the anti-feminism movement’s expansion.
If Yoon does follow through on his promise to eliminate the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, Korea’s already alarming gender pay gap will continue to widen. In addition, the ministry’s prevention programs for violence against women will be eliminated and worsen the gender issue in South Korea.
These prevention programs, which provide legal, medical, investigative and counseling support for victims of sexual violence, will be replaced by enhanced punishments for false accusations of sexual violence by women. The ministry also supports mentoring and networking programs that encourage women’s career development. These, too, may no longer be a reality under Yoon’s presidency.
Most significantly, Yoon’s victory will accelerate the ideological rise of anti-feminism, creating a mainstream political space where misogyny continues to be actively perpetuated. Yoon believes that gender discrimination only exists in Korea as a personal matter rather than a structural one. Not only would the policies promising to safeguard women’s rights begin to crumble, but Korean society as a whole will also question the grievances of women. The proliferation of anti-feminist rhetoric in Korea signals to the global community that the battle against gender discrimination is not a fight worth having, let alone one that exists in the first place.