Gender Inequality in Modern Day South Korea
I am the daughter of South Korean immigrants. My childhood smells of soy bean paste and scallion pancakes. The most comforting sound in the world is the hiss of the rice cooker as it releases a steady jet of steam. My memories are filled with rice cake soup in January, the soft hum of a Korean drama playing in the background, and the honeyed voice of Kim Kwang Seok on lazy Sunday afternoons.
On summers when my family and I would take the thirteen hour plane trip to visit our extended family in South Korea, my mother would cradle my hands as she listed off the things I should be careful not to forget: “This is not America, you cannot talk to your brother without respect like that or your grandparents will be disappointed. When you are in front of your relatives, be a well-behaved lady and they will adore you—stop sitting with your legs spread out like that.“
Once, when I was younger, I cried to my mother because my grandmother had told me that my brother was her favorite because he was a boy. I wanted my mother to scold my grandmother and tell her how cruel it was to say such things. Instead, my mother laughed and said, “That is just Korean culture, don’t be too upset because your grandmother loves you too.”
My family is Korean in every sense of the word and I am proud of my South Korean heritage. Yet, at times I find it difficult to reconcile my feminism with my cultural identity. On one of those summers that I visited my extended family in Korea, my uncle “discovered” that I was a feminist. Immediately uncomfortable, he said, “Feminist? Aren’t they those crazy women who shave their heads, throw blood at people, and want all men to disappear? You shouldn’t be a feminist, that’s a dangerous thing.”
That was the same summer that, as our family performed Jesa, a memorial ceremony dedicated to our ancestors, I discovered that only the men of the household were allowed to perform the ceremony as the women prepared the enormous amount of food required for the event. Jesa is very important to Korean culture and is one of the few traditional ceremonies that Koreans still often follow faithfully, yet these strict gender roles are difficult to ignore. How do I express my appreciation for my culture despite the intense gender imbalances that exist within it?
South Korea remains a society deeply rooted in patriarchy. In 2018, the World Economic Forum ranked South Korea 115th out of 149 countries in gender equality, with the United States, China, and India ranked notably higher in gender equality. On the surface, South Korean women appear to have made strides towards gender equity. In 2013, South Korea elected its first female president. In 2001, the independent Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was founded. Policy-wise, the South Korean government has continued to make strides towards promoting gender equality.
For the everyday life of women, however, not much has changed; laws have only a minimal impact on individual sexist attitudes. In South Korea, only 2.3% of corporate executives are women, 86% of victims of violent crimes are women, South Korean popular culture is rife with sexist comments and messages, and the enormous pressure for women to perfect their appearance has translated into most South Korean women undergoing cosmetic surgery at some point in their lives. The divisions between genders are apparent in the home as well; South Korean men hold the record amongst the world’s most developed countries for the least amount of housework done per day.
South Korean women are still treated as second-class citizens, yet South Korean society vehemently refuses to acknowledge this inequality time and time again. In 2016, a young woman was stabbed to death in a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The perpetrator was a man who cited the fact that he felt disregarded by women as the reason for the attack. Security cameras show the man singling out the woman after letting multiple men pass him by, solidifying the fact that this was a crime of gender violence.
Outcries from many women that this incident was evidence of the deeply misogynistic culture that exists in South Korea were largely dismissed as hysterical and over-dramatic. The word “feminism” in South Korea itself is treated almost as a taboo word, automatically tied to a distorted image of a man-hating, irrationally angry woman. As a result of backlash, actively anti-feminist groups have arisen in response to the #MeToo movement, which reached South Korea in 2017. In fact, younger South Korean men tend to be more anti-feminist than the older generations, who hold patriarchal views but do not actively fight against feminist efforts in South Korea. According to research done by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, around 50.5% of South Korean men in their 20‘s are anti-feminist.
In spite of the overarching patriarchal organization of South Korea, the sexist Korean values about women which run so deep in different aspects of my culture were actively shattered for me by the fact that my father has lived separately from the rest of our family for the majority of my life, leaving my mother to raise us by herself. How could I believe that women were somehow inferior or incapable in comparison to men when I was raised by a woman who actively disproved all the limitations placed on women?
While my grandmother would urge me to one day find a man that would take care of me, I saw my mother come home from work late at night, painstakingly prepare the next day’s meals, and finally sit down at the kitchen table poring over letters and bills that needed to be taken care of. It was my mother who I always saw as the provider for our family. She is a constant, strong, loving, and formidable force. Despite cultural norms of the male as the head of the household, the absence of my father instead provided me with an essential and immovable matriarchal figure.
As a Korean-American, there are bound to be differences between what I view as sexist and what someone who grew up in and lives in South Korea views as sexist. What I may view as sexist, as viewed through a more Westernized lens, might be considered cultural norms or tradition in South Korea. It is important to acknowledge these differences in perspective and not to impose Western standards on South Korea as a “superior” world view. However, the deeply rooted sexism that exists in South Korea, especially on an individual level, has very real and substantial negative impacts on South Korean women. In order to attain equality of genders in South Korea, such inequalities need to be addressed moving forward into the future.
Illustration: Diane Lin is an illustrator and art editor for F-Word magazine. She is a junior majoring in Economics and minoring in Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.