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A rally in support of feminism outside of the offices of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) in Seoul on Dec. 12, 2021. After slow gains in women's rights, the country is seeing a rise in young men angry at feminists, who say they undermine opportunity.WOOHAE CHO/The New York Times News Service

Hawon Jung is a journalist who is writing a book about South Korea’s #MeToo movement.

Recent incidents of harassment that South Korean women faced have been extensive and alarming. A three-time gold medalist in the Tokyo Olympics was cyberbullied and faced calls to have her medals in archery taken away because she had short hair, which some men claimed was a sign that she was a feminist. A suicide-prevention website set up for young women, whose suicide rates surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily went offline because of cyberattacks by online mobs who complained it disregarded men’s lives. When a lawmaker condemned a spate of brutal killings of women by intimate partners, the head of South Korea’s second-biggest party, the right-wing People Power Party (PPP), accused her of framing all men as abusers, comparing her “incitement” to antisemitism and racism.

Episodes like these are part of a wave of anti-feminist backlash that has swept South Korea, a country with one of the worst records in women’s rights in the industrialized world. Small advances that had been made in women’s rights in recent years sparked anger among young men who believe feminism has made them victims of “reverse-discrimination.” Amid mounting frustration over jobless woes, sky-high housing prices and growing inequality in wealth and opportunities, feminists became an easy scapegoat for men to vent their anger on.

Pitting angry young men against feminists has become a key political strategy of the PPP in seeking to oust the incumbent, centre-left Democratic Party in the presidential election in March. Populist anti-feminist rhetoric abounds, and major parties often shun open discussion of gender inequality for fears of offending young male voters, a development that cast a pall over the hard-won progress the country’s women had achieved.

South Korea is the world’s 10th largest economy, a tech giant that is home to Samsung, the world’s top smartphone maker, and a cultural powerhouse whose K-dramas like Squid Game, or K-pop stars like BTS have huge global followings. But, at the same time, the deep-seated patriarchy and gender discrimination in the country have seen relatively little change for decades.

The country, which placed 102nd in the world in terms of gender parity in a World Economic Forum ranking, has recorded the largest gender pay gap in the OECD for decades, currently standing at 32 per cent. Nearly 70 per cent of publicly listed companies have no female executive, and women account for 19 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly, almost on par with North Korea. Sexual harassment and misconduct are rife, especially the spycam porn crimes where women are secretly filmed, including at toilets, workplaces and schools. While the country, largely free from guns, is regarded as one of the safest places in the world, nearly 90 per cent of victims of violent crimes are women, with their abuse or killings by intimate partners making daily headlines.

But women have pushed back. Since 2018, they rallied together to bring down many powerful figures accused of sexual misconduct, including a popular presidential contender, in one of the most successful #MeToo campaigns. They fought against the spycam porn crimes, at one point taking to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest and eventually ushering in several landmark laws against the abuse. They successfully campaigned to end a decades-long ban on abortion. A growing number of “no marriage women” remain single and childless, defying traditional norms that women should be self-sacrificing caregivers for family.

But the wave of activism also drew pushback by those who thought the women had gone too far, with feminists often bullied as “men haters” or “the mentally diseased” who follow “the anti-social ideology.” Nearly 80 per cent of men in their 20s believed they were victims of gender discrimination, a survey showed, and South Korea ranked first among 28 countries surveyed by Ipsos last year on tension between the sexes.

Bae In-kyu, head of Man on Solidarity, one of South Korea's most active anti-feminist groups, leads a rally in Seoul, Dec. 12, 2021.WOOHAE CHO/The New York Times News Service

The backlash reached a fever pitch last year when men’s rights activists waged a war against the image of pinching fingers, often used to indicate something small, claiming it ridiculed the size of male genitalia. In a campaign many called a bizarre, McCarthyian witch-hunt, top companies and state institutions that used such images apologized for hurting the men’s feelings and removed the images from their promotional materials.

Against this backdrop, a right-wing political rookie rose to stardom by amplifying the debate on the “men-hating” hand gesture, and winning support from many male-dominated online forums steeped in anti-feminist rhetoric. Lee Jun-Seok, 36, has claimed gender inequality was exaggerated, dismissed women who protested discrimination as having “groundless victim mentality,” and lambasted measures to curb chronic underrepresentation of women in public spheres as special treatment that hurt fair competition for men. Mr. Lee was eventually elected the head of the PPP, and is now a top adviser to the party’s presidential contender, whose election promises echo major demands of young men’s rights activists.

Yoon Suk-Yeol, the PPP’s presidential candidate, is a former chief prosecutor who has vowed tougher punishment for the limited cases of false reports for sexual assault, which experts warned could intimidate assault victims into silence. (Many sexual assault victims in the country are accused of false reporting and libel when they come forward, although less than 0.8 per cent of the sexual assault cases are estimated to be false, according to state data.) Mr. Yoon also promised to dismantle the gender equality ministry, and slammed a new law to curb the trading of spycam porn footages in cyberspace as a form of censorship.

With young voters being seen as a crucial demographic in the coming election, few politicians are free from the pressure to toe the line. The candidate from the Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myung, who is leading polls along with Mr. Yoon, once cancelled interviews with two media outlets after male supporters complained that the outlets were “too feminist.” Mr. Lee also took to a controversial online forum popular among men’s rights activists to plead for their support, although he also hailed feminism as an effort to make the world a better place.

As all these events unfolded, many women in the country watched with dread and disbelief, wondering if the progress they’d fought so hard for would be rolled back, and their newfound voices silenced.

“This presidential race is an election where women have been erased,” said Jang Hye-Yeong, a member of the minority left-wing Justice Party once attacked by Mr. Lee for condemning intimate partner abuse. “Attempts to deny and reverse the recent progress in women’s rights, made by efforts by countless citizens against all odds in recent years, are stronger than ever before,” she said on social media.

Other women are also speaking out. A group of young women took to the streets in Seoul last month to condemn the populist politics powered by anti-feminism, as they put it. Meanwhile, the organizers of the protest, a group known as Shout-Out, said in a statement: “a country that erases a half of its population and forces them into silence ... has no future.”

“Listen to the voices of women!” they shouted in unison. Some of them hid their faces, on top of the mandatory facial masks, with dark sunglasses and hats owing to fears of bullying if identified.

Across the street, another group of rival protestors loudly heckled and shouted at the women, “stop misandry!”, led by a notorious men’s rights activist known for harassing participants of feminist rallies. In one, Bae In-Kyu, the leader of the Man on Solidarity anti-feminist group, had showed up dressed as the Joker from the Batman movies and followed around participants while waving a toy water gun at them, pretending to “kill flies.”

The marriage of right-wing politics and anti-feminism is a familiar story worldwide, from Spain to the U.S., with feminist movements often marked by a step forward followed by two steps back, a modicum of progress followed by years of backlash. But the ferocity of the animosity against feminism – and the toxic political climate it created – has left many in South Korea stunned.

They may be stunned, but they are not immobilized. Choi Young-Mi, a famed poet and a sexual harassment survivor, once called the #MeToo movement “a fight between the past and the future.” The Justice Party’s Ms. Jang echoed those sentiments recently when she said, “We should stand against the politics that are trying to turn the world back to the days before #MeToo.” Regardless of the election results, a large number of women in South Korea are not willing to revert to a past patriarchal ideal of uncomplaining and unquestioning women the men’s rights activists would prefer.

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