The last few weeks on the campaign trail have been a blur for Jang Hye-yeong, a lawmaker in South Korea’s progressive Justice Party. But amid the flurry of train rides and stump speeches to support her party’s long-shot presidential candidate, Sim Sang-jung, Jang says one moment stood out.
A former labor activist and the only woman from a mainstream party who ran in South Korea’s presidential election, Sim addressed a crowd in Seoul last week. Jang observed a young girl excitedly take out her smartphone to record the moment. But a man, whom Jang believes was the woman’s boyfriend, snatched the phone out of her hand, and dragged her away by the wrist.
Jang, 34, doesn’t know for sure what happened between the couple, but as she worried for the woman’s safety. The moment and the election as the president’s were also symbolic of South Korea’s gender equality. Recent modest gains made by women have led to an antifeminist backlash in which young disenfranchised men voice their criticism of women speaking out and feminism.
No candidate capitalized on the anti-feminist movement like Yoon Suk-yeol, who narrowly won Wednesday’s election and will become South Korea’s next leader. This populist was a member of the conservative People Power Party. He appealed to men worried about losing ground to women.
Yoon called for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to be abolished, and accused its officials of treating men like “potential sex criminals.” He has blamed the country’s low birth rate on feminism—saying that feminism prevents healthy relationships between men and women. He also said that he doesn’t think systemic “structural discrimination based on gender” exists in South Korea—despite Korean women being at or near the bottom of the developed world in a host of economic and social indicators.
Three South Korean broadcasters conducted an exit poll and found that 59% of men aged 20 to 34 voted for him. 53% of those in their 30s voted in his favor. Only 34% of 20-year-old women voted for him.
“Anti-feminist sentiment was widely used to gain voters in the election,” says Lee Ye-eun, of the feminist group Haeil. “It was even the main strategy.”
The rise of anti-feminism as a political force
In an effort to draw young men, both of the leading presidential candidates used at least some antifeminist rhetoric in their campaigns.
Lee Jae-myung, who represented President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), campaigned on a platform of fixing social inequalities through progressive policies like ensuring that at least 30% of top officials are women. A Mar. 1 interview with TIME, he criticized Yoon’s contention that gender equality wasn’t systemic. “I think it’s very important to acknowledge the inequalities and issues of gender inequality that women suffer structurally in our society,” he said.
But even Lee has said that he opposes “discrimination” against men. Although he is against Yoon’s plan to abolish the gender equality ministry, he has called for the government agency to be revamped.
Women say they worry that the anti-feminist language used by such high profile figures will normalize the movement—and further marginalize women in South Korea.
The combination of economic inequality and slowing development, as well as some of most patriarchal social dynamics within the developed world, has made gender equality an extremely polarizing topic in elections. “[The main candidates] are kind of messaging their whole campaign to speak to this very disgruntled population of young men who feel like they’re being left behind,” says Sharon Yoon, an assistant professor of Korean studies at the University of Notre Dame.
TIME spoke with Seo Jaesang (28), at a Incheon polling station. This is a three-million strong city just outside of Seoul. He said that equality for gender was not third or fourth on his political priority list. First was South Korea’s increasingly unaffordable housing market—the average price of an apartment in Seoul has more than doubled in the last five years, to about $1 million. But he agrees with Yoon Suk-yeol that the gender equality ministry should be dismantled because it is “escalating gender issues.”
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Some experts caution against attributing too much of Yoon’s victory to his anti-feminist campaign promises, especially given the razor thin margins. Yoon won 48.6% and Lee 47.8% of the votes. This campaign saw a lot of mudslinging, and even misconduct. Lee’s wife allegedly used his staff to run personal errands, and Yoon has faced questions over his unscientific beliefs, including the use of a shaman and an anal acupuncturist (which he has denied). Moon was also criticized by many voters for his inability to run for a second term due to the fact that he failed curb property prices’ rise. There were also corruption scandals that saw local officials use insider information to invest in real property.
Yoon, a Notre Dame professor says it seems that exit polls have shown that men and women are more interested in choosing a candidate to improve their economic standing than their gender. “The sharp divide among men and women in their twenties is striking,” she says. “It is unclear whether men voted for Yoon because they resonated with his anti-feminist rhetoric, or because they were concerned about the real estate scandals that have tainted Moon’s legacy.”
Other political commentators say that the victor’s anti-feminist tactics backfired. “It seems like women who would have voted for Sim [a third-party candidate] might have voted for Lee,” closing the gap between Yoon and his closest rival, says Young-Im Lee, who specializes in gender and elections in East Asia at California State University (CSU), Sacramento.
The ‘feminism reboot’ has that challenged South Korea’s patriarchy
While a record-breaking 57 women were elected as members of parliament at the April 2020 election, only 19% of them are currently in office. The current U.S. Congress has 27%. In the business world, women hold few positions of power on boards, and the country has the highest gender wage gap among wealthy countries—with women earning 31.5% less than men. More than half of homicide victims in South Korea are women—one of the highest gender ratios in the world (the global average is about 21%). It is not uncommon for men to commit sex crimes. In the recent “Nth Room ” case, at least 74 victims, including underage girls, were blackmailed into uploading explicit videos of themselves on Telegram by a man nicknamed “God God,” who then sold the images.
Women are now fighting back.. The 2016 murder of a 23-year-old woman in the ritzy Gangnam neighborhood—in a random attack by a man who said “he hated women for ignoring him”—sparked an outpouring of rage and the so-called “feminism reboot.” The surge of interest in gender equality for women set the stage, in 2018, for South Korea’s #MeToo movement, which brought a wave of women speaking out against film directors, politicians, and actors. Under banners that read: “My Life is Not Your Porn,” women also took to the streets en masse to protest the use of spycams prompting a crackdown on the use of illegal cameras in public places.
But the increasing visibility of feminism and the fight for gender equality has been met with a growing backlash from some men who think the movement has caused “reverse discrimination” and that #MeToo is a witch hunt. In a June 2021 poll, 84% of Korean men in their twenties, and 83% in their thirties, said they had experienced “serious gender-based discrimination.” (In a survey March 2019 U.S. survey by the Hill-HarrisX, 38% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans surveyed said men faced discrimination).
“The unemployment rate is high, housing prices are really high. So, men in their twenties start to feel like ‘we are the victims,’ says Lee at CSU. “They need something to blame those problems on and anti-feminism is a channel to vent their frustration.”
As an indication of the extreme nature of the debate about gender equality, the adaptation of the bestseller book was made into a 2019 film. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982—which details the every day gender discrimination faced by an average South Korean woman— led couples to argue, and some to break-up, according to media reports.
Some men were radicalized by the online anti-feminist movements that have incubated within these forums. “Spy cam? You will be prosecuted severely. But the Republic of Korea is now going crazy, scrapping the principle of benefit of doubt by letting men be branded as sex criminals without any evidence just because women say so, due to the feminist establishment,” Bae In-gyu, a central figure of the anti-feminist group “New Men on Solidarity,” wrote last month on Facebook, where he has more than 15,000 followers. (Bae did not respond to TIME’s request for an interview).
Jang is a South Korean lawmaker who has been subject to vicious trolling on the internet. She tries not to read the online attacks against her, but “as a politician I can’t just cherry-pick people’s reactions, so sometimes I have to read these things. Sometimes it makes me need a drink,” she says, laughing.
Her smile soon fades when she speaks about the extreme antifeminist sentiment that has made her worry about her safety. According to her, the abuse has had a negative impact on her mental health. Bae’s group has held numerous protests against feminists. TIME talked to several women who claimed they get threatening phone calls from their group and that they are often attacked. One woman even had water thrown at her because she has short hair. “After anti-feminism gained traction, more people are beginning to accept violence against feminists, like, ‘they’re feminists and they deserve it.’ This is gravely dangerous,” Jang says.
South Korean anti-feminists target women in society. An San, an Olympic archer who won many medals in Tokyo Olympics’ Olympic Archery Competition, was subject to online abuse for her hairstyle. “We didn’t train and feed you with tax money so that you can commit feminist acts,” one man posted.
A suicide prevention website aimed at young women, whose suicide rates jumped by more than 40% during the pandemic, even went down temporarily because of attacks by hackers who said it disregarded men’s lives.
In August 2021, Bae reportedly dressed as the Joker and harassed women’s rights activists from the feminist group Haeil at a rally for a video for social media. “I heard that there were f—king feminists here; I’m going to murder them all,” he reportedly said.
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‘A lonely time’ for feminist politicians
While women in South Korean society have often been subject to misogynistic attacks and harassment, it is female politicians who are the most vulnerable. The Justice Party’s Ryu Ho-jeong, 29, is South Korea’s youngest lawmaker, and a fierce advocate for workers rights. However, she is also a vocal advocate for gender equality. In August 2020, she was seen in a casual summer dress at the National Assembly. She drew ridicule from some social media users as well as politicians.
Ryu highlighted some of the most vitriolic comments she’s received with a Facebook post in May 2021, the one year anniversary of her term, including 18 full-page screenshots of online abuse.
“You piece of s— b—…live stream your t—s, you dirty feminist b—,” read one comment. “Is this a lawmaker or someone working at a bar, LOL,” another wrote, in response to a photo of Ryu wearing a dress that would be considered perfectly respectable in most other countries. Others called her a “call girl.”
“The trolling, the attacks—of course, it doesn’t make me feel good, but there are a lot of women I represent that suffer worse harassment or discrimination than I do. These are the people I need to stand for. That’s what makes me keep going,” Ryu speaks to TIME while riding a train between Daejeon and Daegu. She’s also been campaigning non-stop for the past few weeks for the Justice Party’s Sim.
Jang is also subject to vicious online trolling. Although she’s best known for her work on disability rights, she publicly identifies as a feminist. She says that as the result of the backlash against feminism, it’s hard to find other politicians who will talk about feminist issues or label themselves as a feminist. “It’s a rather lonely time,” she says. “A friend of mine told me that I have to stand like a bulwark. ‘No matter the weather or how many harsh waves hit you and try to tear you down, you need to stand strong against this backlash.’”
However, she is worried that antifeminism could have grave consequences for her political career. She cares deeply about things like rights for disabled people and climate change, but she fears that being positioned as a feminist politician in a “male-centric and deeply patriarchal political environment” is the “new glass ceiling in politics.” “Whatever you say is considered to be just another feminist plot,” she says.
President who supports anti-feminist sentiments
Some women were worried before the election about the future of their children, even though Yoon was a possible president. Kim Ju-hee, one of the co-founders of Haeil, thinks Yoon’s tactics are similar to those used by former U.S. president Donald Trump, who stoked hatred to win voters—except that Yoon is targeting women instead of immigrants. She is concerned that the attacks against feminists could get worse than those made on minorities in America.
“After Trump’s election, immigrants were in more danger. The same could happen to me. [to women] in South Korea after a conservative victory,” she says.
One woman in her early thirties, who asked not to be named because she didn’t want to publicly share her voting preferences, tells TIME after Lee conceded the election Thursday, she was “super devastated.”
With a few friends, she had been up late watching election results roll in. “[Yoon] is the definition of hatred and it’s not only about gender equality. He won this election based on hatred against all kinds of minorities, not just women.”
TIME reported that she stated to TIME that the main issue was gender equality. She loves the Justice Party’s candidate Sim and initially planned to vote for her despite the fact that Sim had no shot at victory. (Like the U.S., presidential politics in South Korea is dominated by two main political parties, and third-party candidates don’t stand a chance of winning the election).
But the woman had noticed that Lee has been more vocal about women’s issues recently, and she wanted to do what she could to keep Yoon from getting elected. “I can’t live in this country with a president that doesn’t think structural discrimination exists.”
Many South Korean women believe that anti-feminist rhetoric has made South Korea an even worse place, no matter what the election result. “It’s really detrimental to South Korean politics,” says Jang. “I believe that the citizens’ lives are worsening as anti-feminist rhetoric is being explicitly accepted in the public sphere, including politics.”
—With reporting by Subin Kim/Incheon, South Korea and Charlie Campbell/London