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S. Korea gender divide becomes key election issue

January 19, 2022

A leading candidate in March's presidential election plans to scrap the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He has support among conservatives who question the ministry's legitimacy.

The entrance of South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family
Some South Korean conservatives say the ministry is nothing more than a political propImage: Yonhap News Agency/dpa/picture alliance

The issue of gender has taken center stage in South Korea's fiercely contested presidential election campaign, with both of the leading candidates proposing policies designed to appeal to the critical generation of young swing voters.

With the election set for March 9, one of the most controversial proposals to emerge on the campaign trail has been a plan to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and fold its functions into other ministries. 

The idea was put forward by Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP). It has been met with howls of protest from the left-wing supporters of Lee Jae-myung, Yoon's fiercest rival and the candidate for the ruling Democratic Party.

Lee himself shot back that Yoon should provide details about how he would replace the work done by the ministry and accused him of cynical electioneering.

A fellow member of the Democratic Party, Kwon In-sook, accused Yoon of "instigating gender conflict" and criticized his proposal as "pathetic and tedious."

Korean politicians in colored gowns appear on stage
Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol (l) shakes hands with left-wing opponent Lee Jae-myung (l)Image: YONHAPNEWS AGENCY/picture alliance

Public divide on gender issues

Surprisingly however, more than half of the Koreans taking part in a recent poll said they support Yoon's call for the gender ministry to be scrapped.

The survey, conducted by Realmeter, a public opinion polling group, showed that nearly 52% of respondents are in favor of abolishing the ministry.

Established in 2001, the ministry has become a focal point of debate in South Korean society over gender inequality. 

Yoon is attempting to tap into that discontent, analysts say, but they also warn that he risks widening the rifts that are already causing so many problems.  

"Gender is a key issue in this election because the 20s to 30s age group are crucial swing voters and that's where the 'gender conflict' is the hottest," said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Seoul. 

"Young men feel discriminated against when it comes to jobs, claiming that opportunities are in favor of women based solely on gender and not merit, while young women are tired of a patriarchal society and advocate for gender equality," she told DW. 

"Gender equality policies have been perceived by men as preferential treatment toward women during the current administration of Moon Jae-in, and they view feminism as reverse discrimination toward men," she added.

"So, Lee and Yoon are both aggressively trying to win young voters by saying things they think will be appealing to that generation." 

Yoon Suk-yeol holds up his hands at a campaign event
Conservative Yoon and his People Power Party have enjoyed a recent bump in the polls Image: Yonhap News Agency/picture alliance

And while women have indeed been given new opportunities under the Moon administration, that has led to a fierce backlash within a society that is still very much male-dominated and has a poor track record of gender equality and women’s rights.

The country came in at 108 of the 153 nations on the World Economic Forum's gender gap report and an even more dismal 127 out of 153 countries in terms of economic participation and opportunity for females.  

What's the criticism of the gender ministry?

Young-chae Song, a young professor of international development at Seoul's Sangmyung University, backed up the argument that many South Korean men feel women receive preferential treatment, whether it be with jobs or education. 

"There are many young men in our society who are struggling at the moment," he said.

He told DW he supports Yoon's proposal to scrap the gender ministry, claiming it is less concerned with women's rights and serves to promote a "wide range of left-wing aims and has adopted left-leaning positions on everything from economics to relations with North Korea."

"Conservatives do not believe that the ministry was set up primarily to promote women's rights," he added. 

Yet the tactic of politicizing gender carries significant dangers beyond the immediate campaign, warned Duyeon Kim. 

"The work and fate of the gender ministry have been a topic of debate for as long as it has existed," she said.

"But politicizing gender issues to either extreme and demonizing feminism could have serious social implications beyond this election."

In any case, Yoon's tactic appears to have been popular among some voters. A recent Realmeter poll indicates that his support has climbed close to 41%, up 6.5 percentage points in one week and beyond the 36.7% of his main rival, Lee.  

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea