Being Bold For Change: South Korea’s Online Feminist Movement

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was “Be Bold For Change.” And, indeed, the ousting of the South Korean president was bold. Former president Park Geun-hye and South Korea’s first female president was impeached on March 10, just two days after International Women’s Day. While activists protested for an end to discrimination against women and for looser abortion laws, Park’s presidency came crashing down to cheers of protesters outside the constitutional court.  As noted in the New York Times (NYT), women’s rights activists held signs that said “3 O’clock, Stop”, a reference to the gender pay gap in South Korea. Activists argue that the gap is wide enough that women are essentially working for free after 3pm.

In contrast, protesters both pro and anti-Park clashed over former president Park Geun-hye’s ending presidency. Many had spent months last year calling for her impeachment and even her imprisonment. Her presidency was once heralded as a huge step forward for South Korean women in a strongly patriarchal society. Park’s dramatic downfall was the result of a huge corruption scandal that engulfed South Korean politics for months. The scandal involved Park’s close family friend Choi Soon-sil and the alleged embezzling of millions of dollars. Also, Choi’s influence over Park and her government was questioned. Park has been accused of abusing her power and attempting to undermine the democracy of South Korea. South Koreans of all ages and occupations held massive demonstrations, protests, and candlelight vigils against Park Geun-hye until the South Korean parliament voted to impeach her.

While the accusations against Park are political, some of the insults thrown at Park strayed from being politically-minded and were of a gendered nature. Throughout Park’s election campaign and presidency, her gender was not often brought up as an issue or point of debate. Now, some South Korean women are worried that Park’s downfall will be used by some to argue that women are unfit to lead, and will lead to even stronger resistance to women in positions of power.  Kim Yun-jeong, 22, stated in the New York Times that, “We have had more than our share of outrageous male politicians. But I feel men now saying, behind our back and with a smirk on their faces: ‘See! This is what we get when we have a woman president for a change.’”

Park’s gender has even been brought up by her own lawyer, Yoon Yeong-ha, who stated in the NYT that Park was “a woman before being president”, and that her “privacy as a woman” should be taken into account in the investigation against her. This has been rejected by women’s advocacy groups who rebutted in the NYT by stating, “They are not investigating her privacy as a woman but her acts of destroying constitutional order as president.” Yoon’s remarks also stand in contrast to the platform on which Park was initially elected. Park’s status of being unmarried and childless, a female social taboo in South Korea, did not act as a hindrance. Park argued that her lifelong devotion to South Korea is why she never married. She would be, in South Korea’s eyes, a president before a woman.

Many others voted her in because of her father, former dictator Park Chung-hee. Now, those of the older generation who elected her with her father in mind have turned against her by calling her an “unfilial daughter.” As noted in the Korea Herald, she’s also been referred to as a mere ‘housewife from Gangnam.’ Park has also been called  ‘Miss Park’, indicative of the way Park’s unmarried status is now being used against her.

One presenter at a candlelight vigil last year stated in the Korea Herald that, “We are all citizens with equal rights. We are angry about President Park because she manipulated society, not because she is a woman.” Amidst the complaints of sexism directed at Park were also allegations of sexual harassment of women who attended the anti-Park rallies. One student at Sookmyung Women’s University posted an article called “Why I didn’t go to a rally,” arguing that there was “rampant sexual harassment,” as well as male protesters speaking in a derogative manner about female protesters.

Recently, South Korea has witnessed highly publicized incidences of violence against women. In May 2016, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death in a toilet in a busy area of Seoul. The killer confessed that he killed the woman in a random attack as a hate crime against women he believed treated him badly in the past. The murder triggered demonstrations, protests, and discussions about misogyny and violence against women. In response, men’s rights groups retaliated saying that the protests against the murder of a woman increased and encouraged discrimination against men.

In the last few years, South Korea has seen a rise in an online feminist movement that has controversially tried to combat the discrimination and misogyny South Korean women face. The website Megalia is a form of South Korean radical feminism and one that has been widely publicized. Since its founding in August 2015, Megalia has been at the centre of much controversy regarding feminism and the fight for equal rights in South Korea. As explained in Korea Expose, it began as an online movement in June 2015. Women ‘netizens’ began to use the tactic of ‘mirroring’, or copying men’s misogynistic forum posts or comments and merely replacing the words “women” with “men.” In patriarchal and in many ways conservative South Korea, the Megalian’s movement has been met with resistance and criticism. Megalians have been branded as “man-haters” and criticized as hateful and for inciting a gender war. Its members have actively worked to campaign against injustices they see in South Korean society. For instance, Megalia campaigned to expose and get rid of Soranet, a pornographic website that has been associated with underage pornography and sex work, and illegal videos. The website has consistently managed to avoid prosecution.

While Megalia has met strong resistance online, this has spilled over into real life. As explained in the BBC, Kim Ja-yeon, a voice actor employed by gaming company Nexon, was fired for posting a photo of herself wearing a Megalia-designed t-shirt that had the words “Girls do not need a prince” printed on it. Kim played the voice of a character in the game “Closers.” Nexon stated that they didn’t approve of the t-shirt or the reason it was being sold by Megalia, which was to raise money for women taking out lawsuits against men they allege treated them badly. Nexon said Kim would be paid for her work but that her voice wouldn’t be used. In associating herself with a feminist movement that attempts to speak out loudly about discrimination faced by women, Kim was quite literally silenced.

Lee Na-young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, argued that the sexism many women experienced at these rallies and the sexism directed at Park are representative of the larger problem of misogyny and sexism in South Korean society. As explained in the Korea Herald, online movements such as Megalia attempt to change society at a grassroots level, despite the strong resistance they encounter. Their actions are bold and are aimed at effecting change. Considering the backlash that a statement like “Girls do not need a prince” received and the responses demonstrations against violence against women were met with, it is not hard to understand the hostile attitude many protesters have against Park. Incidents like these highlight the necessity of strong voices continuously calling for gender equality. In the future, perhaps a president’s gender won’t be used as an insult or an excuse, and South Korean activists will truly be able to enact bold changes.

Miranda Watson

Miranda Watson is a graduate of the Australian National University, where she completed a double degree in Arts and Asia-Pacific Studies. Having spent time living and studying in South Korea and majoring in Northeast Asian Studies, she has a strong interest in the Korean Peninsula and issues to do with reunification and peacekeeping. Miranda is currently an Australian correspondent for the OWP.

About Miranda Watson

Miranda Watson is a graduate of the Australian National University, where she completed a double degree in Arts and Asia-Pacific Studies. Having spent time living and studying in South Korea and majoring in Northeast Asian Studies, she has a strong interest in the Korean Peninsula and issues to do with reunification and peacekeeping. Miranda is currently an Australian correspondent for the OWP.