I still remember the day vividly. It was summer of 2019 in Gwangmyeong, South Korea and my mom and I were driving to IKEA. As my mom was backing the car into a parking spot, we both noticed that the car behind us was inching closer. My mom honked and I opened the car window to say, “Would you please wait until we are parked?”
To that, a man got out of his car, approached us and began pounding on the window, threatening us to get out. At that point, we were parked and petrified, not knowing what to do. When we eventually got out of the car, he rushed to my mom and started waving his fist at her face, threatening, “Do you know who I am? Huh? How dare you honk at me?”
My mom kept calm and said that he was moving too close as we were parking. This did not deter him. Scared that he would actually punch my mom, I stepped in and said, “I asked you nicely to wait a little because we were parking.” He came up to me and threatened me to shut up because I was young and had no right to talk back to him. A man passing by saw what was happening, approached us, and only then did the lunatic man drive off.
My mom and I were traumatized and shaken up. I think of this day every now and then — if I were a man, would he have exhibited the same terrorizing behavior? If I were a man, it would not have taken another man to break off the fight — I could have done so myself. Every time I think about this incident, I cannot help but feel unprotected in my own country. Most tragically, what my mom and I went through is not an isolated incident. Instead, it is just one example of an ever-present problem that South Korea still fails to address: Gender inequality, often manifesting as harassment.
South Korea has a shiny side that it wants to proudly show the world: K-pop, K-quarantine during COVID-19, hi-tech industries. But what it is less keen to show are the areas where it catastrophically fails. South Korean society does not know how to protect or treat women as equals to men and as valuable and indispensable entities of society. Rather, South Korean women, myself included, live in a country that views women as objects —beautiful things whose sole function is bearing children. This is not just a societal construct, this is unabashed discrimination against women that is encouraged by my government.
South Korean women, myself included, live in a country that views women as objects —beautiful things whose sole function is bearing children. This is not just a societal construct, this is unabashed discrimination against women that is encouraged by my government.
For example, in January 2021, the Seoul city government uploaded guidance for pregnant women to make sure to check if there is plenty of toilet paper in the house, make meals for husbands, and to pay attention to their looks by hanging smaller size clothes to motivate themselves to lose weight after giving birth. And the discrimination against pregnant women begins long before the actual pregnancy. In hiring processes, interviewers routinely ask women invasive questions about their plans to get pregnant, with some openly telling female candidates it would be difficult to hire them because the company does not want to pay for maternity leave. According to a local survey, an astounding number of 74% of working women responded that they experienced “some form of gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and wage discrimination.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that South Korea’s birth rate has plummeted to an all-time low. And, even when women do overcome these barriers to entering the labor force, they face the largest pay gap of any industrialized nation.
The discrimination against women in South Korea, unfortunately, extends far beyond economics. Out of 300 seats at the Parliament, women hold just 57 seats (19%), which sadly is more women in Parliament than ever before. This political discrimination is the product of a society where 30% of survey respondents said they would rather vote for a male politician than a female politician even if her resume was as good as his. This could also be the direct result of President Park Geun-hye, who was the first female president but quickly became a national disgrace on account of her abuses of power. She was the first female president to serve an already patriarchal country and she set a worryingly negative precedent that women should not be in politics and are incapable of serving as president.
Politics and industry are not the only areas where women feel underrepresented or misrepresented. Both the government and the traditional social architecture dictate that women fit into the specific mold that a society has built for them. Take the existence of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family as an example. The true meaning of the ministry is lost in translation. In Korean, it means the Ministry of Women and Family. The objective of the ministry is to enhance the status of women, protect youth and multicultural families, and protect women, children and youth from violence. But by grouping women and family together, it casts women into the perpetual role of the caretaker of the family. If the South Korean government truly wanted to achieve gender equality, then it should have dedicated a ministry solely for women and gender equality, rather than throwing family into the mix.
The gender inequality problem in South Korea is deep-rooted, as evidenced by strong pushback from those who do not believe in feminism. Some men in South Korea do not support gender equality and go further to argue that “feminism is no longer about gender equality. It is gender discrimination and its manner is violent and hateful.” They also think that feminism and gender discrimination may be applicable to women in their 40s or 50s but not for women in their 20s or 30s.
However, this issue is increasingly drawing more attention. Since the violent murder of a woman near a subway station, the #MeToo movement started to spread in South Korea. The #MeToo movement has prompted several high-profile sexual abuse prosecutions, from politicians to K-pop celebrities. The most recent example was Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon committing suicide over his former secretary’s sexual harassment allegations. And while President Moon campaigned in 2017 to become a “feminist president,” three of his closest allies have already been accused of sex crimes. With a presidential election drawing ever so near in 2022, President Moon failed to keep his promise of being a feminist president.
Since the end of World War II until now, South Korea has rapidly transformed from an underdeveloped, war-ridden country to one of the most developed countries in the world. Yet, in some respects, like gender equality, South Korea remains woefully underdeveloped. South Korea’s notions of a woman’s role in society remain locked in an ignorant early 20th century mindset, which severely hinders progress in my country. No country can succeed without women. South Korea is no exception.
What can be done? South Korea must stop objectifying women and portraying them solely as beautiful objects or caretakers who are incapable, submissive, or untalented. This will start with Parliament and local governments doing more and doing better to protect women’s rights. We need sustainable policies where women are protected against violence, receive equal pay as men, are not discriminated against because they get married or pregnant, and where women can proudly and safely identify themselves as feminists. Only then will South Korea be able to truly consider itself as a developed country.
Young Hyun Lily Joo is a graduate of George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, where she received an MA in International Affairs with a concentration on International Security Studies. Lily was born in Seoul, South Korea and has been studying in the U.S. for over a decade. Lily worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as a Korea Chair Intern, at the Wilson Center as a Research Assistant Intern, and at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as a Global Security Intern.