The two leading candidates for South Korea’s presidential election in March, Lee Jae-myung of the incumbent Democratic party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power party, have both made men’s rights central to their campaigns. They hope to appeal to the growing constituency of outraged men’s groups who vent their frustration at feminist overreach on internet message boards and sometimes even protest on the streets. And this is no fringe community: in a poll in May, more than three-quarters of South Korean men in their twenties claimed they had suffered gender discrimination.
The ostensible provocation for this anger is the outgoing president Moon Jae-in’s self-declared ‘feminist’ administration. The initiatives of the Gender Equality Ministry include start-up loans for female entrepreneurs, incentives to businesses to promote a gender balance on their boards and a pledge to allocate 30 per cent of cabinet posts to women.
All that may seem unremarkable in the ‘progressive’ West, but it jars horribly in still-traditional South Korea. The country has one of the world’s toughest merit-based education systems which puts children through a punishing regime of tests, cram schools and witheringly frank report cards. To go through that hell and learn you could be passed over for a decent job because of your sex has clearly driven some men beyond endurance. And this is in a country where many men feel disadvantaged by their two years of compulsory military service.
Yoon has been the more vociferous of the two candidates. In a recent Facebook post he called for the abolition of the Gender Equality Ministry: his original position was just to reform it. He has also pledged to increase the wages of enlisted soldiers and to undo policies that push preferential treatment for women.