Jun 24, 2022 - World

Gender divide between young people shakes South Korean politics

An anti-feminism protest in Seoul in October 2021. Photo: Jean Chung/Getty Images
An anti-feminism protest in Seoul in October 2021. Photo: Jean Chung/Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's election in March by just 0.7% of the vote highlighted the sharp divisions in Korean society between generations, income levels and, perhaps most starkly, between genders.

Breaking it down: Yoon benefited from deep discontent among young men, winning 59% of men in their 20s vs. just 34% of women in that age group — by far the largest gender gap in any age group.

  • During the campaign, Yoon said feminism was warping relationships between men and women, claimed men were being treated like “potential sex criminals," and denied the existence of systemic discrimination against women.
  • He was appealing to the anti-feminist backlash among young men in South Korea that has been driven at least in part by fierce competition for jobs and university places.

The big picture: South Korea has one of the world's most-educated populations, but as the country's once-explosive economic growth has slowed, many have been left unemployed or underemployed.

  • While gender inequality in the South Korean economy has historically been unusually high for a rich country, more women than men are now attending college, and the most prestigious employers are hiring many more women than before.
  • The fact that men are required to serve around two years in the military, while women aren't, has become a potent political issue.

Yes, but: Women are also facing the same cutthroat career competition in a system that's still largely run by men.

  • South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, due in part to career pressures and the high cost of child care.

What they're saying: Politicians from both parties contend that the primary driver of the tension is economics.

  • "If you get down to the root cause of the problems among the younger generation, when they have a lack of opportunities to be successful, they have to fight against each other," says the opposition lawmaker.
  • The generation that's currently in power in politics and business enjoyed all the fruits of South Korea's democratic and economic development, the ruling party member added, while younger people today risk being left behind.

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