Thin victory margin in presidential election signals a divide in Korean politics

In March 2022, conservative opposition leader Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president of Korea following a campaign based on anti-feminist rhetoric and promises of fixing the plummeting Korean economy. A margin of less than one percent made his election the closest in Korean history — and possibly one of the most controversial. 

The Global Policy Institute sat down with Professor Joewon Yoon of Korea University in March to discuss what this election means for South Korea’s future.

Before the election, what were Korean voters hoping to see in a presidential candidate?

Many people were worried about the economic conditions of Korea at the moment because — as most other countries did — Korea suffered quite a lot under the pandemic. Small business owners took a blow and people wanted the new president to be able to come up with a solution that would help them get through the difficult time. 

In addition to that, minority issues are quite important because Korea still has not instituted legal measures regarding the equality of sexual minorities, let alone women’s equality. So these things were a big issue.

Legal protections for minorities have been a hot-button issue in Korea for years. The 2020 anti-discrimination bill proposed by Korea’s Justice Party was the ninth bill submitted to the National Assembly on the topic since 2007, but the bill was never even debated.

But the conservative party — while they emphasized the importance of the economy — did not really address the gender equality or sexual minority issues. Some of them even argued that there is no institutional inequality between men and women in Korea, which made me think that I am living in the only country in the world where there is no inequality between different genders and sexes. [Yoon laughs] Should I be proud?

President Yoon won by a margin of less than 1%, with a noticeable split between young male and female voters. Do you think this election is indicative of a larger political divide between Korean men and women?

There has been that kind of division in the past couple of decades, which seems to be backlash against the little feminist achievement which has taken place. These young men in their 20s and teens grew up in a culture or atmosphere where they learned women should be equal. In their minds, there is no inequality between men and women. 

And now these men think that they are victims of some institutional justice because they have to serve in the military — a mandatory thing for men in their 20s. So as far as they can see, there is no inequality between men and women as they have experienced, but in their 20s they have to lose these precious years of their lives serving in the military whereas young women have it easy. They don’t have to go to the army and can do whatever they want in order to promote their career. Women occupy advantageous positions in an extremely competitive job market after college. So that’s the young men’s viewpoint. 

The conservative party fueled that perspective and young men responded to that. So the conflict between young men and women is even bigger than before.

A 2021 poll revealed that almost 79% of Korean men in their twenties believed they had been victims of gender discrimination. Korean anti-feminist groups like Man of Solidarity claim that feminists argue for female supremacy rather than equality, and that feminism in Korea has led to economic and social disadvantages for men.

Do you think the anti-feminist movement we are seeing in Korea right now follows historical patterns of Korean conservatism or represents an entirely new threat to Korean women?

Korea has always been a significantly patriarchal culture, but men of my generation — while they were patriarchal — seemed to be, at least, nurturing the idea that men should do certain things in order to be entitled to their own male privilege. They were not happy about having to go to the army, but at the same time most of them accepted the idea that there was a certain role that they needed to fill in exchange for certain privileges — even though they were maybe not aware of certain things as privileges. But younger men don’t seem to be very happy about these particular gender roles, which they understand as burdens. They don’t seem to be recognizing any male privileges. This seems new to me.

Also, women do not really want to return to the roles that had been imposed upon them traditionally. And more and more men seem to want their girlfriends or wives to be able to earn as much money as they do — in theory at least. At the same time, they prefer their wives to have certain jobs rather than others. Certain jobs that would allow them to spend more time at home, taking care of children and doing household chores. So these young men, while they seem to promote the equal division of labor, they seem to stick to a rather traditional picture within the domestic space, even though they don’t acknowledge it.

The number of young men who think that wives should take care of children and domestic chores is decreasing, but I don’t think it’s quite fair, still, among the young people. Even if they seem to be changing in ways of thinking about how to divide labor in the domestic space — how to think about marriage as an institution — I think these preconceived notions about gender roles still have a long way to go.

Economic concerns definitely seem to be a big part of it, for both men and women. Young men seem to be blaming women for being able to promote their own careers while men are not allowed to do so because of their military service. Today’s job market is especially competitive because capitalism is taking a more advanced, diverse, inhuman form… They have to find someone to blame. I think it’s a structural misunderstanding that needs to be publicly addressed, but politicians are not doing their job. Politicians are not trying to enlighten people about the newer social problems they would have to face and address in a more objective manner. Politicians are using the situation for ideological purposes and making it worse.

Korea’s Democratic Party candidate, Lee Jae-myung, began his campaign by appealing to the same young anti-feminist men who made up much of President Yoon’s voterbase, but soon shifted his attention to trying to win the votes of young Korean women. How much did these young female Korean voters affect the election?

Younger women were really quiet for a long time while the presidential campaign was going on, because, whereas the conservative party tried to listen to the young men’s voices and tried to mobilize these anti-feminist young men to their advantage, they really did not pay attention to women’s votes — as if younger generations of Koreans consisted mainly of men. 

So, young men’s voices were very much listened to, while young women were largely ignored. Polls tried to translate what men thought in numbers, but they did not really factor in young women’s presence and opinions. 

Towards the end of the presidential campaign, a lot of young women in their 20s and 30s decided that they should go for the ‘lesser of the two evils.’ That was one of the reasons why there was a less than 1% vote difference at the end. We thought it was going to be a larger difference, but the difference turned out to be very, very small and many people think it was the result of these young women finally voicing their opinions through their votes.

Days after Yoon’s election, the Korean Democratic Party received 100,000 new membership applicants. Do you think this election will trigger a new wave of Korean feminism?

I definitely hope so. I think there are certain signs of younger women wanting to mobilize their own political influence in some sort of visible movement, but I’m not really sure how it’s going to turn out. The ruling party that’s going to be in power in the next couple of months is going to be very oppressive. It’s showing its own oppressive signs already. They declared that they are going to deconstruct the Ministry for Women and Family already.

On the one hand, I’m hopeful that women will realize how things are going to take a bad turn from here on in the next five years, and try to do something for themselves, but at the same time, it’s very hard to remain optimistic. But I think we are definitely seeing a significant turning point, in a good direction or a bad direction — I’m not sure.

Dr. Joewon Yoon is a professor at Korea University whose work focuses primarily on examining a broad range of topics — from 19th-century American literature to Korean pop culture — through queer and feminist lenses. She has written extensively on the status of gender and sexual minorities in South Korea. You can read more of her thoughts on contemporary South Korean feminism here.

Some quotations were modified for clarity.

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