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Elections reveal a growing gender divide across South Korea

Women are shown at a rally to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. Participants of the rally advocated for a society free from institutional discrimination, one where women can enjoy equal rights with men.
Chung Sung-Jun
/
Getty Images
Women are shown at a rally to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. Participants of the rally advocated for a society free from institutional discrimination, one where women can enjoy equal rights with men.

SEOUL, South Korea – When South Koreans elect a new parliament this week, the outcome will shape the next four years of the country's politics. But some watchers will be looking to verify a trend that can influence it for decades to come – the political divide between young men and women.

In the 2022 presidential election, 59% of male voters between ages 18 and 29 voted for the conservative candidate Yoon Suk Yeol, who eventually won. Their support for Yoon was second only to that of voters aged 60 and older.

By contrast, young women under 30 were the least supportive constituents for Yoon of all gender-age groups. Only 34% voted for him, according to exit polls.

In recent major elections, young South Korean men and women have consistently shown around 15 to 30 percentage points' difference in their support of the main political parties.

While many other developed countries – including the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom – are observing a similar phenomenon, experts say South Korea's fast social development and politicization of gender issues have made its case particularly intense.

Perceptions about gender inequality drive political differences

Compared to democracies with longer histories, South Korea's political gender divide is a relatively recent phenomenon. But it has progressed fast.

Polling expert Jeong Han-wool, who heads the firm Research Institute of Korean People, first noticed the rift during the preceding administration of liberal President Moon Jae-in, who vowed to become a "feminist president."

"Conservative attitudes started to appear, especially among men in their 20s, first over gender issues. And then they proceeded to anti-Democratic Party, anti-liberal positions," he says.

Jeong attributes the divergence of opinions on gender issues to South Korea's rapid political and social development.

"For a long time, patriarchal norms governed South Korean society. But those social norms dissolved with democratization, and I don't think we have established new norms that can fill the vacuum," he says.

Moon Jae-in started his term around the time of the MeToo movement, as a new generation of young feminists was emerging in South Korea. They came out to the street in the country's largest protests on women's issues in history to condemn violence against women and persisting inequality.

The protests were an outburst of pent-up frustrations Korean women have felt throughout the country's modern history, says politics professor Go Min Hee of Ewha Women's University in Seoul.

"With rapid urbanization, a large number of women moved to cities as laborers. This brought a lot of economic changes but also changes in their perception," Go says.

But, she says, women's social and economic status has not caught up with their growing sense of autonomy.

Many of the young feminists are the first generation of South Korean women who are more educated than their male peers, as women's college enrollment rates started to exceed men's in 2008.

"Gender gap in education has disappeared with the declining number of children and growing attention to education. But the income gap in the post-education labor market hasn't closed," she says.

South Korea's gender wage gap remains the largest in the developed world, with women earning 31% less than men as of 2022. There are smaller proportion of women on corporate boards and in parliament than in most other affluent countries.

Young women may excel in schools and in their early careers. But they wonder if they will be able to stay in the workforce 10 or 20 years later and get paid as much as men do.

Men do not feel they have it easier than women

But young men see things differently, according to pollster Jeong Han-wool. They grew up seeing girls in their class enjoying equal opportunity and getting better grades than them, he says.

"Men feel they are falling behind in competitions. And they also have to serve in the military at an important time of their life. But the Democratic Party and the liberal side were only talking about discrimination against women," Jeong says.

He found in a 2019 survey that nearly 70% of men in their 20s think discrimination against men is serious. Many point to mandatory conscription as an example. All able-bodied men must serve for at least 18 months, but not women.

Jeon Yesung, a 23-year-old college student in Seoul, remembers scrolling through his Instagram feed while he was in the military.

"My friends were spending time abroad as exchange students when I had just come back from shoveling. When you zoom in on that moment, it can feel pretty discriminative," Jeon says.

He says he supports gender equality, but he didn't think feminists were pursuing the same goal. He admits, however, that many Korean men, including himself, don't even care to understand what feminism is.

"From what I understood through the media, I've had the idea that feminism is aggressive and hateful toward men," he says.

Antagonistic attitudes toward feminism are common across economically developed and culturally liberal countries, according to Alice Evans, a visiting fellow at Stanford University who studies global gender norms.

While young men don't share their parents' ideas about gender roles and believe in meritocracy, Evans says, "the difference now is this sense of resentment, this hostility towards women, the feeling that women are getting unfair advantage."

Young men see efforts for gender parity as unfair, she adds, because of the zero-sum thinking that women's gains come at men's expense.

And that sentiment interacts with South Korea's slowing economy and historic sexism, according to Evans.

"If men are accustomed to high status, if men feel that they deserve to be at the top but are not getting it because they are denied and frustrated," she says, "that's what caused this backlash."

A family casts their votes for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
/
AP
A family casts their votes for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Gender conflict is not solely a young generation's responsibility

But young men's sense of frustration is not only directed at women. Seong Seokgon, a 26-year-old math major at Seoul's Yonsei University who identifies himself as conservative, says the current conflict is as much about generation as it is about gender.

"It's not like 20-something men are hurting 20-something women's chances," Seong says, arguing young men are unfairly blamed for older generations' faults.

"In the end, the glass ceiling was made in a more sexist era by men who are now executives," he adds.

And he says today's South Korea is a harder place for both men and women, as the standards for success have become higher and harder to fulfill. That pressure makes young people more vulnerable to divisive finger-pointing that abounds in online spaces, he says.

Another college student in Seoul, 24-year-old Kim Hoyun, agrees. He says neither men nor women in South Korea are willing to take a step back and hear each other out because they grew up in a fiercely competitive environment.

"We have only practiced living for our own interests. So instead of seeking room for compromise, I think we are more used to asserting ourselves and securing our gains," Kim says.

And, he adds, so are the politicians. "I think the conflict has gotten worse because politicians have abused that to gain votes from certain groups," he says.

During his election campaign, in a bid to attract young male voters, President Yoon Suk Yeol said structural sexism no longer exists in South Korea and pledged to abolish the ministry for gender equality.

He has failed to implement the pledge due to resistance from the main opposition Democratic Party, which holds majority control. But in February, two months before the parliamentary elections, he accepted the resignation from the gender equality minister that he had sat on for five months. He did not appoint a replacement.

Meanwhile, the distance between men and women is growing, not just politically but also emotionally.

In a 2021 survey conducted by South Korean news magazine Sisa IN, over 66% of men in their 20s said they cannot accept feminists as neighbors, colleagues, friends or family.

Pollster Jeong Han-wool, who participated in designing and analyzing the survey, found that anti-feminist sentiment is increasingly determining 20-something men's voting behaviors. Their view has even spread to men in their 30s and 40s.

"Once you identify with a party, inertia develops. And it affects attitudes toward other policies. You start to take traditionally conservative stances, like being critical about welfare," he says.

And the impact of the widening gap doesn't end in politics, according to Jeong. He is concerned it is also pushing down the country's birth rate.

At 0.72 per woman, South Korea's birth rate is already the world's lowest. And young people are increasingly unenthusiastic about marriage.

Ewha University professor Go Min Hee says mismatched expectations in the dating market can be a reason. What women want from a romantic partner have evolved, she says, and their growing awareness for equality and economic power allows them more choices.

"More choices mean not only that they can choose one person among many, but that they can choose not to choose anyone."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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