The Korea Herald


[Feature] Gender-based conflicts escalate in Korea

Tough life of young people lurk behind the hatred

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : May 6, 2021 - 15:31

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(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

Gender-based conflicts are escalating in South Korea with men becoming more gender sensitive and beginning to make their voices heard about feminists.

Last week, police investigated female comedian Park Na-rae over allegations of sexual harassment after receiving a complaint from the petition site e-People. During her YouTube entertainment show in March, she playfully pushed a male doll’s arm toward its groin while changing the doll’s clothes. Following the program, thousands of comments -- mostly from angry men -- were posted calling for her to leave or be removed from TV programs.

In July last year, another female broadcaster, Kim Min-ah, was at the center of controversy when she made inappropriate remarks to a male middle school student on the government’s official YouTube channel. She dropped out of the program in response to numerous protests.

In a nation where the majority of victims of sexual harassment are female, Ha Jae-geun, a pop culture critic, said there had been an “area of tolerance” for women regarding sexual remarks, but it is now time to “point out” the issue.

Park Sung-geun, 29, who joined a cosmetics firm two years ago, recalled when his female boss touched his arm asking whether he works out.

“I was a little taken aback and felt uncomfortable. But I had to laugh and move on because I look weird if I took issue with it. But later I thought what if I did it to a female coworker. That would create a big problem and I might have been disciplined by the company.”

Another male office worker, Song Kyu-ha, 42, said, “Most men in my generation probably haven’t experienced much of what women went through in a male-dominated society.”

“But even if we did, we just let it slide. Looking back, we were insensitive. For instance, when we were told sexual jokes -- either from a male or female boss -- we didn’t make an issue out of it. It is rather more humiliating for men to publicize such an issue. But younger men, who are more gender sensitive, may feel differently,” he said.

According to a survey released by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training in 2017, both men and women were exposed to workplace sexual harassment, with 34.4 percent of women and 25 percent of men responding they were sexually harassed in the workplace. As for the perpetrators in cases involving male victims, 86.4 percent were men and 13.6 percent were women.

Kim Yun-tae, a professor teaching sociology at Korea University, said, “Sexual harassment can be carried out by anyone -- regardless of gender -- who has status and power but lacks gender sensitivity. Perpetrators have been mostly men only because most Korean companies have been male-dominant.”

Gender-based conflicts

However, when looking more closely at Park’s issue, there is more than just men’s gender sensitivity.

“In the case of Park Na-rae and Kim Min-ah, men may have felt sexual humiliation, but the protest (from men) is more like retaliation against feminists and some women who say men are always perpetrators and the problem,” said Kim Hyuck-jin, 29, who works for an energy firm.

Apart from articles related to Park, a large number of comments related to misogyny and antipathy toward feminists have emerged on Korean online communities in recent months.

“Feminists say we discriminate against them. But honestly I don’t know what I get more of from society compared to my female colleagues. Discrimination was done by the older generation and I don’t know why I have to pay for it.” Kim said.

Jung Chang-wook, 43, said, “At my age, I have a slight sense of debt (toward women) because it is true there has been widespread sexual harassment and discrimination in the male-dominated society. But younger men have been much more educated about gender sensitivity and have rarely benefited (unfairly due to gender). They seem to be branded as perpetrators only because they are men.”

The gender-based conflict doesn’t appear likely to subside soon, as young women still hold the view that society does not treat them fairly.

Yoon Jung-ah, 31, an interpreter, said, “Women have no choice but to speak up more because the playground itself is tilted in the Korean society,” citing data that Korea’s gender pay gap is still the highest among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Korea also ranked the worst among 29 countries in a glass-ceiling index released by the Economist.

According to the survey done by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family with 10,101 respondents aged from 15 to 39 between October and November last year, people in their early 20s were most sensitive to unfairness. Seventy-seven percent of women and 54.1 percent of men recognized Korean society as being unequal based on gender.

Experts say gender conflict does not help solve the core problems and the issue should be looked at with a more rational perspective.

“Men in their 20s are socially disadvantaged. They face a tough job market, skyrocketing housing prices, compulsory military service and no incentives for that. But rather than expressing anger at the older generations or policymakers who created the society, they tend to turn their anger on women who are competing for entrance exams with them right now,” professor Kim said.

“The real issue is class conflict, not gender conflict. Not all women are Megalians (radical feminists) not all men are Ilbe (a politically far-right online community). There must be less than 10 percent of such extreme people. Accurate diagnosis and analysis are needed to make rational judgments,” he said.

By Shin Ji-hye (