South Korea’s Feminist Party
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Contemporary feminist movements in South Korea
South Korea, known for its technological prowess and progressive economy, is ranked amongst the lowest in the developed world for gender equality, placing 115 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Forum. Yet in recent times, South Korean women have amplified their voices and the country has witnessed a parallel unprecedented wave of feminist activism. Encouraged by the dawn of the global watershed #MeToo movement, there has been heavy pushback against deeply institutionalized patriarchy in the country with an unmatched fervor unseen elsewhere in Asia. The #MeToo movement in Korea was sparked by a civil servant, Seo Ji-hyeon, coming forward with her story of sexual harassment in the government in early 2018. Though she’s not the first woman to go public, her story became viral as the accused was a high-profile senior justice ministry official.
Ji-hyeon’s story inspired many others to come forward with their own stories and in response to the rising number of complaints and reports, in November 2018, the Korean legislature revised the gender-equality law. Among the new provisions, victims of sexual harassment would receive more protection and employers who penalize the victims can be fined or sent to jail.
Furthermore, thousands of women marched in protests and spoke out online to protest against sexual harassment, illegal spycam videos in public bathrooms and changing rooms and the country’s restrictive abortion laws. The feminist movement also includes campaigns such as Escape the Corset in which young women are refuse to conform to gender norms by cutting their hair short and giving up makeup. No Marriage is another popular campaign which calls for women to reject rigid patriarchal standards that expect them to get married and have children.
South Korea’s first Feminist Party
Against this backdrop of increasing reports of sexual harassment along with a surge in backlash and anger over the country’s spycam porn epidemic, for the first time in history, a feminist party is sought parliamentary seats in the elections held in April. Kim Ju-hee, one of the youngest candidates at the election and one of four running from the Women’s Party, realized that in order to make systemic changes, participating in rallies and signing petitions was not going to be enough. The Women’s Party was founded on International Women’s Day (March 8th) and is fighting for a seat at the table where the political establishment has regularly failed its women. The founders claim that Moon Jae-in’s administration “went completely silent” after pledging feminist policies and that none of the country’s major parties support women’s issues.
Although thousands of women joined the party within the first week and the latter was confident of its ability to win 2 million votes on election day, the Women’s Party only ended up with 0.74% of the vote and none of the candidates were elected into the National Assembly.
Despite being disappointed by the result, the party has quickly moved on and are now beginning plans for local municipal and provincial elections in 2022. Among these preparations, the party plans to set up a political school to plan for winning strategies and to train candidates about the inner-workings of the world of politics. The school will recruit former local government leaders for training sessions and will study how to organize political campaigns as well as delve into women’s rights issues. Kim Eun-ju, one of the party’s founders and a prolific women’s rights activist told Reuters that “although our members are passionate in feminism issues, they lack political skills.”
Non-exclusivity of feminist/gender issues
Evidently, the party’s journey hasn’t been without struggle. In a country where calling yourself a feminist openly can lead to social stigma, many South Korean women find it difficult to support single-issue parties. Many women would still vote on the basis of employment issues, housing prices and education. According to an article published by the Japan Times4, Chai Hyun-jung, a 33-year-old mother from Seoul said “I have too many other responsibilities in my life to solely focus on gender issues.” This view is reflective of the idea that feminism and women’s rights issues are “first world problems” that originated in the West and are being copied by the East.
In many countries in Asia, feminist issues are often framed as outside of the mainstream or as concerns of extreme activists and/or the elite class who doesn’t have to worry about fundamentals such as securing work or having a roof to live under. It is also difficult for women’s issues to gain popularity on the voting agenda in societies which have never values women’s status, agency or labour. Concerning all of these difficult circumstances, it isn’t surprising that Women’s Party candidates and members had received online death threats and had stones thrown at them while on the campaign trail. In South Korea, a woman supporting feminist causes is more likely than not to be attacked by vicious and relentless online trolls. In dire cases, she could even lose her job.
Keeping all of this in mind, The Women’s Party’s has reassured the electorate that women’s policies are not only for women and insist that gender mainstreaming should be integrated into every type of policy, from labor to national security. If the Women’s Party continues to fight the feminist fight with renewed dedication and resilience and wins the next elections, South Korea may well be on track to joining other Western countries in designing and implementing feminist policies. It would be the first Asian and one of the first country from the Global South to do so – an achievement that is bound to cause ripple effects in the Asian political landscape in the years to follow.