Why is South Korea still so backwards on gender equality?
On March 10, 2017 when South Korea’s first and only woman president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached, the country cheered in unison. This was a major victory for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who had peacefully protested for her removal in office. For three long months, South Koreans took to the streets to voice their distaste for Park, who had been found at the center of a criminal conspiracy scandal in 2016. Finally, justice had been served, and many people watching around the world commented, “Now that’s how you do a protest.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the finger-pointing and, more specifically, gender-blaming started. Among the sentiments shared online and on television, the most common ones were:
“Of course she failed. She’s a woman.”
“This is why women can’t run a country.”
“We should have never elected a woman.”
Park’s election in 2012 was a symbolic milestone for women in Korea. I, like many Korean-Americans, followed this election closely. After Park was voted in, people expressed surprise, and even envy, at the fact that Korea had elected a woman for president ahead of the United States.
However, with Park’s impeachment came deafening chants of “women are unfit to lead,” most notably from men’s right activists across the country. I believe that Park’s impeachment was the right move. However, she should be judged for her actions, not for her status as a woman. If a male president had been impeached for the same reasons, no one would say “See, a man is unfit to lead.” Furthermore, I was shocked to learn that many of my fellow Korean-Americans voted for Trump this past election because a racist pig is still better than “a girl president,” which shows us how badly Korea still lags on gender equality.
The misogyny in South Korea is intense. Korea is still a conservative society that is deeply rooted in the Confucian concept of nam-jon-yeo-bi, which translates to “man is higher than woman.” As outdated as it sounds, this is still the accepted social norm for Korean women. Additionally, the gender wage gap in South Korea is the highest among OECD nations, women drop out of the workforce in huge numbers after having children, and the country dropped to 118th among 144 countries in terms of gender equality in 2017. And last but not least, according to the NY Times, South Korean men hold the record for doing the least amount of housework among the men in the world’s most developed countries. That is just embarrassing, plain and simple.
I hate to say it, but what do you expect from a country that emphasizes the idea that a woman’s greatest attribute is her physical beauty? South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. One in five women in Seoul has had cosmetic surgery, and blepharoplasty, or double-eyelid surgery, is a common high school graduation gift for young women from their parents. Beauty privilege is real in Korea. In fact, it could be the deciding factor of whether or not you get a job. After all, some companies require headshots to be included with resumes when submitting job applications. In a country where good looks outrank talent, work ethic, and determination, it’s no surprise that women are often targets of objectification. You don’t have to look further than K-Pop celebrity culture to see this emphasized over and over again.
Luckily, change is coming, and it starts with this new generation of South Korean feminists. Although the older folks cluck their tongues and reprimand these men and women, telling them to step back in line, it’s only a matter of time before the country breaks through to the other side. On May 17, 2016, a young woman was stabbed to death in a bar restroom in Gangnam. The male suspect’s motive? Women have always ignored him and he was taking out his frustrations. This sparked huge protests across Seoul, with many women calling for an end to these types of sexist crimes.
More recently, the #MeToo movement has reached Korea. Celebrities (actors, musicians, entertainers), politicians, and writers are exposing and speaking out against their abusers. Of course, they’re met with lots of backlash and hatred (“They’re just overreacting”), but it’s a step in the right direction.
I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have been raised by my mother, one of the strongest women I know. My mom was raised by a single mother who ran her own business, which meant she was the sole provider of the family. As a result, my mom only knew that way of life, that women could run businesses and make their own money and didn’t have to depend on a man to survive. In this way, my mom grew to be independent in her own right and eventually moved to the United States to pursue graduate education. I come from a line of self-reliant and self-determined women, more importantly, Korean women, which is why both my sister and I continue to push our narratives out into the world every day to shed more light on this issue. And although South Korea still has a long ways to go to achieve greater gender equality, I’m hopeful that we’re on the eve of a major tide that will influence the future of many generations to come.