Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why So Many Young Men in South Korea Hate Feminism

Loss of privilege has driven an ugly turn to the hard right.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
Political leader Lee Jun-seok waves the People Power Party’s flag.
Political leader Lee Jun-seok waves the People Power Party’s flag at the party’s national convention in Seoul, South Korea, on June 11. Kim Min-Hee/Pool/Getty Images

In many countries, young voters are presumed to lean liberal. Until recently, that was also true in South Korea. But in the last few years, young male South Korean voters have made a sharp rightward turn. In the Seoul mayoral by-election held in April, a staggering 72.5 percent of male voters in their 20s voted conservative, a proportion higher even than male voters in their 60s and older (70.2 percent). Fueled by aggressive misogyny and a distorted worship of supposed meritocracy, young Korean men are heralding an ominous new chapter in South Korea’s conservative politics, especially as a new conservative party leader echoes misogynist rhetoric.

Young voters were a significant presence in the 2016-2017 Candlelight Struggle that led to the impeachment and ousting of conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye. South Korean political discourse at the time spoke of the “Sewol Generation,” who were galvanized by the Park administration’s mishandling of the Sewol ferry disaster, where more than 300 passengers—many of whom were high school students on a field trip—perished in the sinking ship. Strong youth support carried over to the early part of the liberal administration that followed Park’s impeachment. In the first monthly poll by Gallup Korea of the Moon Jae-in administration, conducted in June 2017, 90 percent of those in their 20s supported the president, higher than the 81 percent overall approval rating.

But just four years later, the figure for youth support was just 31 percent in Gallup Korea’s monthly poll for May, compared to a 34 percent overall approval rating. More specifically, young male voters have completely turned on the liberals. Among women in their 20s, support for liberal Moon was 37 percent, still higher than the overall approval. But among men in their 20s, the same figure was an abysmal 17 percent—the lowest among all demographics broken down by age and gender. In other words, South Korean men in their 20s express more conservative views than men who are 60 years old or older, 24 percent of whom approve of the president.

In many countries, young voters are presumed to lean liberal. Until recently, that was also true in South Korea. But in the last few years, young male South Korean voters have made a sharp rightward turn. In the Seoul mayoral by-election held in April, a staggering 72.5 percent of male voters in their 20s voted conservative, a proportion higher even than male voters in their 60s and older (70.2 percent). Fueled by aggressive misogyny and a distorted worship of supposed meritocracy, young Korean men are heralding an ominous new chapter in South Korea’s conservative politics, especially as a new conservative party leader echoes misogynist rhetoric.

Young voters were a significant presence in the 2016-2017 Candlelight Struggle that led to the impeachment and ousting of conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye. South Korean political discourse at the time spoke of the “Sewol Generation,” who were galvanized by the Park administration’s mishandling of the Sewol ferry disaster, where more than 300 passengers—many of whom were high school students on a field trip—perished in the sinking ship. Strong youth support carried over to the early part of the liberal administration that followed Park’s impeachment. In the first monthly poll by Gallup Korea of the Moon Jae-in administration, conducted in June 2017, 90 percent of those in their 20s supported the president, higher than the 81 percent overall approval rating.

But just four years later, the figure for youth support was just 31 percent in Gallup Korea’s monthly poll for May, compared to a 34 percent overall approval rating. More specifically, young male voters have completely turned on the liberals. Among women in their 20s, support for liberal Moon was 37 percent, still higher than the overall approval. But among men in their 20s, the same figure was an abysmal 17 percent—the lowest among all demographics broken down by age and gender. In other words, South Korean men in their 20s express more conservative views than men who are 60 years old or older, 24 percent of whom approve of the president.

Youth unemployment is one reason for the sharp rightward turn. Overall, the Moon administration has maintained a low unemployment rate of around 4 percent. But unemployment for the under-30s, which was between 7 and 8 percent in the 2000s, began to climb to more than 9 percent in 2014 and has remained at around that level to this day . But the economic factor does not explain why there is such a giant gender gap, even though the tougher job market affects young women more than young men.

South Korea’s experts who have focused on this issue point to two tendencies among young Korean men: worship of the idea of meritocracy and misogyny. Young South Koreans, born in the late 1990s when South Korea was well into being a prosperous liberal democracy, have little sense of the historical struggles that defined the older generations, such as the Korean War or the fight against military dictators for democracy. Instead, their struggle is with a series of examinations: entrance exams for high schools, entrance exams for colleges, and entrance exams for high paying, secure jobs. This is the generation that has spent most of their lives taking or preparing for exams, in the infamously grueling hagwon or cram school system. As a result, younger South Koreans have internalized the logic of those exams and elevated it into a type of distorted moral sensibility, where the poor are to blame for their own suffering.

Social scientist Oh Chan-ho was one of the early voices who pointed to the meritocratic moral compass of South Korea’s young generation in his 2013 book, We are in Favor of Discrimination. Oh recalled being stunned by his students’ response to the 2009 disaster in the Yongsan district of Seoul, where a fire broke out as small business owners were protesting their eviction from a condemned building, killing six people and injuring 28 others. Rather than focusing on the dire economic straits of the subsistence-level business owners or the police’s excessive use of force, Oh’s students would say the business owners “asked for too much” and “accepted the risk” of getting evicted because, the logic goes, the business owners could have done better at school and gotten a different job if they didn’t want their livelihoods to end abruptly.

In their 2019 book Men in 20s, journalist Cheon Gwan-yul and data scientist Jeong Han-wool characterized this meritocratic sensibility as a preference for “decontextualized fairness.” For the book, Cheon and Jeong conducted an in-depth survey on the values of Korean men in their 20s. The authors found that South Korea’s young generation worshipped meritocracy while blurred the distinction between internal determinants (such as effort and motivation) and external determinants (such as socioeconomic class.) Although “fairness” is an important keyword for Korea’s youth, in practice, their idea of fairness takes on a reactionary, might-makes-right form.

The other characteristic of South Korean men in their 20s is their aggressive misogyny. To be sure, sexism has been a long-standing issue in South Korea. Yet this generation’s aggrieved version of sexism has taken on a different character from their fathers’ more traditional version of sexism featuring machoism and strict gender roles. If older Korean men see themselves as patriarchs who oversee women, younger Korean men see themselves as victims of feminism. Cheon, one of the co-authors of Men in 20s, noted that survey results showed young men rejected both male privilege and the duty that typically come with the patriarchal form of sexism. Instead, the survey showed their version of sexism was marked by over-the-top hostility against feminism: 58.6 percent of Korean men in their 20s said they strongly opposed feminism, with 25.9 percent marking the intensity of their opposition as 12 on a scale of 0 to 12.

The interplay between worshipping meritocracy and misogyny of South Korean men in their 20s provides a clearer explanation of the gender gap and the timing of the young generation’s conservative turn. Korean women still face significant amounts of discrimination; for example, a recent survey by the Economist put South Korea in last place among industrialized nations in the glass-ceiling index, which measures the gender gap in education, wage, and managerial positions. Yet Korea’s young women have been making steady gains in recent years. The proportion of women attending college, for example, has been higher than the same proportion of men since 2009. Educated young women have brought new energy into South Korea’s feminist movement, culminating with Korea’s own #MeToo movement in early 2018, sparked by Seo Ji-hyeon, a woman prosecutor who blew the whistle on the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of a senior prosecutor. Some young women make fun of misogynistic men on a personal level, such as by using a hand emoji that mocks the size of their genitals.

Young men, in turn, see their women peers as threats who (in their misguided view) continue to receive preferential treatment despite having achieved equality, offending their sense of supposed meritocracy. In their study, the authors of Men in 20s found no other animating force for the young men’s conservative turn; in other words, young men did not become conservative in a sense that they supported the free market, opposed the welfare state, or even opposed Park’s impeachment. The only political issue that moved South Korea’s young men in a distinctive way, according to Cheon and Jeong, was the “meeting point of gender and power,” or the areas men believed they faced structural disadvantages in on the basis of gender.

The constellation of beliefs held by the 25.9 percent that displayed off-the-charts hostility toward feminism is particularly alarming. Within that group, 100 percent agreed with the statement, “today, discrimination against men is more severe than discrimination against women”; 95.7 percent disagreed with the statement, “gender discrimination is the reason why Korean women earn less than men”; 78.3 percent agreed with the statement, “women earn less because they give less effort to their careers”; and 58.3 percent disagreed with the statement, “in a fair society, men and women have roughly the same income.” Responses to questions along this theme were so consistent that Cheon and Jeong labeled this 25.9 percent group of young South Korean men as an “identity group” whose politics are primarily motivated by opposing feminism. Unsurprisingly, this group is a staunch opponent of the liberal government; 83.3 percent disapproved of the Moon administration, which they see as too feminism-friendly since it has tried to break the glass ceiling, such as by incentivizing corporations to increase their number of female executives or pledging to appoint women for at least 30 percent of cabinet-level positions.

This identity group now has a political champion. On June 11, the People Power Party, South Korea’s main conservative opposition, elected 36-year-old pundit Lee Jun-seok as its party chairperson. Even setting aside his young age, Lee’s selection was highly unorthodox. The party chairperson position is among the highest political posts in South Korea, usually given to a multiterm legislator with a strong support base within the party. (Lee’s Democratic counterpart, Song Young-gil, for example, is a five-term National Assembly member and former mayor of Incheon, South Korea’s third largest city.) But despite trying three times, Lee has never had an electoral victory. But his worldview is sharply in touch with his male peers. Analyzing his party’s victory in the Seoul mayoral by-election, Lee penned an op-ed saying the Democrats lost because they “went all-in on feminism while underestimating the voting power of men in their 20s and 30s” and railed against “radical feminists” and government initiatives that appoint more women in the cabinet or give them bonus points in the hiring market.

Following Park’s impeachment, South Korea’s conservatives have been adrift, losing four national elections in a row before winning the Seoul mayoral by-election. By making the unusual choice of Lee as its chairperson, the conservative party is choosing grievance politics against women to rejuvenate itself—an ominous sign for the future of South Korean politics.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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