My mother fled South Korea for two years in her 20s because she couldn’t stomach her domineering father. On her return, she was married off to my conservative father, whom she gradually realized she didn’t care for. Divorce was still taboo, so she opted to go to Canada with me in tow. The pretext for this long-distance marriage was my education, but it was also for her freedom from patriarchal expectations.
More than two decades have passed. She keeps her address in Canada but now spends considerable time with my father in Seoul. She also dines occasionally with her father, a frail man in his 90s. The arrangement works since the men in her life have grown subdued and she has more say over her life. With time, gender equality came to our family. Patiently waiting for improvement in gender relations, however, is not a strategy for South Korea.
The country awoke on May 17 to shocking news that a young woman had been stabbed to death in a bar restroom in a busy shopping district in Seoul. Reports of murder are hardly rare in this country, but the 30-something male suspect’s motive stunned people. After the arrest, he told the police that he committed the crime because women had always ignored him.
The incident prompted testimonials from many women about the amount of misogyny they endure. A large number of men, in turn, dismissed the notion that the killing was an act of misogyny and said that women were being hysterical.
Many men would rather not acknowledge that South Korea is an entrenched patriarchy and that toxic gender relations are taking a toll on society. Women’s status has stalled in the 21st century. Too many of them are treated like second-class citizens and suffer undue violence, objectification and discrimination.
There is no easy solution, but one important step would be to pass the anti-discrimination bill, which has stalled in the National Assembly for nearly a decade. It would mandate equal treatment for everyone regardless of gender or other factors. A clearly worded law would signal that women and minorities deserve equal rights.
It’s only on the surface that South Korea has made strides toward equality for women. The first female president currently leads the nation. We have an independent ministry of gender equality and family. Some 24-hour convenience stores are designated as places of refuge for women fleeing harm.
Still, the reality for South Korean women remains bleak.
Women made up 86 percent of all violent crime victims in 2013, according to police data (most violent crime is sexual in nature, and women suffer disproportionately from sexual crimes). Women aren’t safe at home, either: Reports of violence against women perpetrated by their husbands have been rising in recent years.
Women fare just as poorly in how they’re depicted. South Korean movies often show images of unimaginable cruelty toward the female body. A popular television cooking show recently described sizzling strips of pork belly as “better-looking than the rear” of a young girl-group member.
It’s no wonder then that the World Economic Forum ranks the country 115th out of 145 countries in gender equality. Women earn only two-thirds of what men earn, according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor. Women made up 2.3 percent of corporate executives at 348 of the largest 500 companies in South Korea in 2015 (others were exempt from reporting).
The typical male response to the May 17 killing hints at just how deep misogyny runs. Men invaded the memorial websites for the victim and flooded comment sections, telling women they were overreacting.
“You are as helpless as you let yourself be,” one man said on Facebook.
The culture of misogyny and gender inequality may be affecting family life, in a country facing predictions of population collapse. Research shows that a low fertility rate in developed countries reflects backward attitudes over female gender roles. Last year, the South Korean marriage rate tumbled to the lowest level in 12 years, and the birth rate is perennially one of the lowest in the world.
Meanwhile, South Korean men hold the record for doing the least amount of housework among the men in the world’s most developed countries — an average of just 45 minutes per day, or one-fifth of the time a South Korean woman spends.
As gender discussions heated up after the bar killing, the police asked the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the agency in charge of monitoring the internet, to delete online posts, which were said to exacerbate the tensions, in order to “prevent online conflicts from manifesting as society-wide conflicts.”
The government routinely scrubs what it deems unsavory from the internet, so this action wasn’t unusual. But in this case — removing individual citizens’ posts that used colorful language to express low opinions of men or women — it simply shut down the debate about women in society. Stifling speech is no cure for a rot deep inside South Korea.
Passing the long-stalled anti-discrimination bill would help reduce discrimination, create legal protections and compensation, and, hopefully, reduce misogyny. Although various United Nations conventions urge adoption of such a law, similar efforts have failed three times in the National Assembly since 2007 due to objections from the evangelical lobby and the business community.
My mother has made peace with her life. It’s her father who now regrets having infringed on her freedom. “You could’ve become a somebody,” he repeats at family meals, recalling her various talents. His change of heart comes too late for her, but it’s not too late to give respect to South Korean women of new generations.
Se-Woong Koo is the managing editor of Korea Exposé, an online magazine specializing in the Korean Peninsula.