When I think of developed and well-put-together countries, I think of those that have been known as the most educated in the world. These countries include our own country, as well as those such as Japan, Canada, Israel, and South Korea. South Korea is the fourth-highest rated in terms of education, with 47.74% of people pursuing post-secondary education (World Population Review Editors, 2021). South Korea also boasts one of the most technologically connected populations in the world, where there 82.7% internet penetration gives them constant access to a wealth of knowledge (Cha, 2013). For decades, we’ve heard from politicians and our media that South Korea is a mecca for intellections and technology, and those interested in video games and anime will recognize their rich culture as well. This country, however, hides a real problem. Its women aren’t equal.
Now the problem of inequality for women dates back for decades, but I’ll be focusing on the recent push for equality. The picture below shows the current state of the country in terms of gender equality. For reference, GMAT exams are college graduation exams to test management readiness, and OECD is a membership group of the world’s greatest economies.
Despite having an above-average rate for the GMAT exam, South Korean women have the largest wage gap among the most developed countries. Compare that dismal fact to the country having the worst female representation on company boards and it becomes clear that there’s a problem.
For the sake of my argument on this injustice towards women in South Korea, I will be focusing on a recent event within the country’s history. In early 2019, the Seoul city government shared several sexist remarks in an online manual. The remarks recently resurfaced on social media which sparked a discussion among the younger generation within the country. Some of these comments included advice to pregnant women like, “prepare meals for your husband”, “don’t forget to look after your looks”, and “maybe hanging smaller clothes in visible areas will work as a motivation to lose weight”. (Moon, 2021) These comments recently brought the women’s movement in Korea back into the public spotlight. The online manual was quickly taken down after the backlash it received, but the damage had already been done. This patriarchal ideology isn’t new to those living in South Korea as many know that compared to men, “The value and position of women are much lower in the society” (Moon, 2021). Starting in the late 1980s, women’s opinions on marriage and motherhood in South Korea had slowly moved away from the more traditional roles of the past century. The country has been making progress in women’s rights, but society still has a long path to gender equality. One college student in South Korea put her situation this way, “I had no choice but to get married as a woman…… not doing so would be a sign of failure.” (Resos, 2016)
I got curious about reading into this situation so I decided to do some more research, and I found this: “In 2016, South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior launched a “birth map” website that showed the number of women of childbearing age by city district and region. That website was pulled after a public outcry” (Park, 2021). The only image I could find of the old website is shown below.
This is just another example among hundreds depicting blatant sexism from the government of South Korea, proving that these injustices toward women are deeply systemic. “Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, is a form of racism that is embedded as a normal practice within society or an organization”. The systemic nature of the sexist online manual in 2019 stems from the fact that the elected city government promoted it. By putting out this message, the government is essentially admitting its sexist standpoint against woman’s autonomy. The government of the country pushes South Koreans toward traditional roles through social norms and promoted rhetoric. The elected government in South Korea is a representation of their society, and the actions and comments of that government reflect the society that elected said government. This was many people’s problem with our past President, Donald Trump. Politics aside, his words and actions perpetuated hate and divide among historically marginalized groups such as women and Latinos. Most people didn’t see a major problem with the fact that he was saying this kind of stuff while holding the highest government office in our country. A position where influence spans past America to the rest of the free world. Below I’ve attached a video talking about gender inequality across OECD countries, as well as potential unseen problems with said discrimination. The website also has some insightful interactive graphs to look at.
What’s crazy to me is how deep this systemic injustice toward women is in South Korea. I found several more instances within the past decade that are almost identical to the two I mentioned above. I’d compare the movement for women’s equality in Korea to the fight for racial equality in America. Both movements have deeply rooted societal norms to break, and both movements must dismantle systemic drivers of nature. Both have had to fight with those on the opposing side who argue that the problem isn’t as widespread an issue as is led to believe. This fight for Korean women will be especially hard because of how Korean society is structured. Men hold a vast majority of representative voting office, men control most of the economy, and men control the media. This means that if the women want any change to happen in their favor, they must convince men to see their side. This is rather challenging as many men in the country believe that “Feminism is no longer about gender equality. It is gender discrimination and its manner is violent and hateful” (Kwon, 2019). The movement might be a waiting game as the older generation in South Korea favors more traditional gender roles.
The movement for women’s rights in South Korea could learn some things from the decade’s old civil rights movement in America. Martin Luther King and his supporters used peaceful protests to get their message of equality across. We learned during our reading of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he calls on the policymakers to spur change as he sits in jail after being wrongfully arrested. Just last summer, tens of thousands of South Korean women marched against hidden cameras taking unsolicited pictures of them. This gathering was reportedly the largest women’s march ever for the country and it marks a massive point in the timeline of equality for women. Oftentimes, human rights movements are often controversial for the time, such as the fight for gay rights recently, but this women’s movement in Korea is something that should have been done decades ago. The rights, freedoms, and securities that these women desire are things that women of other developing countries have had for so long, and it is the purpose of their government to grant these rights to them.
While thinking about this topic over the past few weeks, I couldn’t help but think back to what I learned from Ortiz-Cofer. She suffered similar judgments to her body by her peers like the women I talked about above. Ortiz-Cofer focused more on how nationality changed perceptions, but South Korean women face similar judgments to those written about in Story of My Body. I wish everyone in Korea had to read Story of My Body so that they can see how their upbringing and society affect their perceptions toward women. Maybe then they could gain a little perspective on the topic so that future generations might change the misguided upbringings perpetuation systemic injustice within Korea. My biggest connection between this fight against inequality in Korea and our learning in the class comes from Spivak. Spivak argues that the subaltern cannot speak because their words fall on deaf ears. The women of South Korea have a voice, but with most representatives in government being men, their voice is oftentimes not heard. This was seen with the sexist online manual that I talked about before and in the countless other government-promoted memos. Korean women must fight to make their voices heard within their society, and more and more are doing just that. Finally, if I had to offer some advice for Korean women, it would be to seek to understand their opposition. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo treats all the women around him terribly from developed country perspectives. Once you understand his society, how he was raised, and his struggles, you understand why he acts the way he does to those around him. At the end of the story, we see Okonkwo kill himself, and the once-powerful men of his tribe become subjugated to the powerful British rule. Korean women must fight for their freedoms, but not in a way that isolates the men of their society. As I’ve shown above in a statistic, young men in Korea already don’t like the feminist movement because of what they think it represents. Add the fact that men hold the power in the government and you’ve got a recipe for disaster if you strike Korean men with anger and spite. Attacking their opponents is not the key to success, the women must seek to understand their opposers just as MLK did.
Cha, F. (2013, November 27). 10 things South Korea does better than anywhere else. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/10-things-south-korea-does-best/index.html
Kwon, J. (2019, September 24). South Korea’s young men are fighting against feminism. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/21/asia/korea-angry-young-men-intl-hnk/index.html
Moon, G. (2021, January 20). South Korean women hit back as old gender roles return. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/south-korean-women-hit-back-old-gender-roles-return-n1254704
OECD. (2021). Gender. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://www.oecd.org/gender/
Park, J. (2021, January 12). Seoul city criticized for sexist tips to pregnant women. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/wireStory/seoul-city-criticized-sexist-tips-pregnant-women-75194866
Resos, A. (2016, October 06). The empowerment of women in South Korea. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/empowerment-women-south-korea
World Population Review Editors. (2021). Most educated Countries 2021. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/most-educated-countries
(2021, April 01). Institutional racism. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_racism