Activists in South Korea are standing strong in their push for peace and gender equality following the recent election of conservative People Power Party leader Yoon Suk-yeol as President of South Korea.
“Leading up to the election I thought he might win. I was still shocked and now reality has set in,” says Kim Jeongsoo, a representative with Women Making Peace, an organisation working to advance reunification and peace in the Korean peninsula. “Still, I remain proud of our democracy, of what we’ve been trying to establish so far. I know our democracy is precious; we have to try and keep it and continue our movement.”
Violence, discrimination, and oppression: Life for women in South Korea
Organisations like Women Making Peace and other advocates for women’s rights in South Korea understand the brutal realities that women in the country have faced for decades.
“Since the 1970s, our society has been striving for gender equality through the women’s civil society movement,” says Youngmi Cho, executive director with the Korean Women’s Movement for Peace. “Nevertheless, the gender wage gap with female employment rate reaches 36 per cent and the participation rate of women’s economic activities is also lower than that of the average of other developed countries.”
South Korea’s culturally dominant patriarchal ideologies have made it difficult for women to balance work and family. Women will often leave their jobs after marriage in a culture that has tended to consider housework and childcare as ‘women’s work.’ At the same time, men (and only men) are forced to serve in the military under inhumane conditions, further fostering a culture of male dominance and even deeper resentments of women by men. Rising house prices and cost-of-living in a currently struggling economy have also been used by conservative politicians and other leaders to encourage gender division.
Women are also facing growing rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other violations like the illegal filming of women in restrooms, hotel rooms, and other spaces where women expect to have privacy and safety. Illegal filming has been on the rise and has increased by close to 90 per cent in just over five years.
Women are also underrepresented in leadership across business, government, and other spheres of society. While the Moon administration increased the proportion of female ministers and women’s participation in decision-making bodies by government ministries, men still represent the majority in these spaces.
A divisive presidential campaign
In recent years, some progress has been made for women in South Korea.
The Women, Peace and Security agenda established through the UN’s Security Council Resolution 1325 and UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) both mandate women’s inclusion and women’s equal participation with men. These have had an important influence on Korean society and movements to establish a gender-equal society, including through national action plans. South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has sought to address sexual violence, domestic violence, prostitution, at-risk youth protection, and youth and family support through policy. A number of acts and other legislative frameworks have also contributed to establishing women’s peace and security policies.
Yet, Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign rhetoric and public statements have stood in opposition to feminist and peace progress in Korea. In the run-up to his narrow victory, aided largely by votes from men, and particularly young men, the conservative party leader blamed South Korea’s low birth rates on the feminist movement; championed the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family; declared that there was no structural discrimination of women and that women’s liberation had effectively been achieved; and promised punitive measures for women deemed to have made false accusations of sexual violence against men – something that could actually deter many women from reporting sexual violence.
“He actively used the degenerative and fictional frame of hate agitation and ‘gender conflict’ rather than a policy and vision of equality for women and minorities,” says Cho. “This is likely to reverse the path to gender equality and the progress that has been made through the women’s movement to date.”
Yoon Suk-yeol’s apparent peace-by-force versus peace-first approach regarding conflict with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and in alliance with United States military policies and systems will only provoke further tensions and conflict in Korea, activists say. The president-elect has notably opposed an end-of-war declaration with North Korea and has instead championed CVID (the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear program), expecting that North Korea will hand over its nuclear weapons first and without any peace agreement or assurances from South Korea and the United States.
War and conflict (and even peace negotiations and post-war reconstructions) very typically facilitate the exclusion, oppression, and discrimination of women as well as gender-based violence. As such, Yoon Suk-yeol’s conflict strategies not only pose a threat to the peace, safety, and security of all Korean citizens, but very specifically and directly to Korean women and girls.
Where do we go from here?
“It is necessary to apply pressure for all of Korea to comply with international laws and also monitor CEDAW reports,” says Cho. “I think international cooperation and advocacy on how women, peace, and security agendas are being realised need to be shared and that it is possible to collect the voices of women in all conflict areas to engage in joint actions.”
WILPF consultant and Korea Peace Now! representative YouKyoung Ko adds that activism at the local, grassroots level and shared action can have impact.
“It’s important for international civil society organisations to support grassroots experiences,” says Ko. “Women’s activism and strategies in other countries that have experienced war and conflict have helped me to develop my own strategies for activism. We need to mobilise and organise for peace in Korea; to show collective will and power; and we need to include the experiences of voices of all women and other minorities, including working classes.”
For additional reading, please see the following resources:
- “South Korea’s New Conservative President Will Likely Setback Peace and Gender Equality” by Christine Ahn, Founder and Executive Director, Women Cross DMZ
- WILPF Statement for International Day of Peace 2021 (September 2021)
- “Time to End the Seven-Decade-Long Korean War” by YouKyong Ko, Consultant with WILPF and the women-led Korea Peace Now! Campaign launched in 2019 to end the Korean war with a peace agreement.