Korea’s low birth rates: linking gender-based violence and discrimination with feminist movements

Like many other countries, South Korea has been struck by the low birth rate phenomenon, reaching record lows of 0.81 children per woman in 2021. Heading towards uncharted territory, Korea’s government recognised low fertility as a matter of “national importance” in 2015 and has spent over 150 billion dollars to encourage more pregnancies. With rates far below the necessary levels to maintain a stable population, South Korea faces a shortage of workers and a surplus of retirees as well as the very real economic shifts that will accompany it.


Although economic factors are often blamed for low fertility rates, critics have begun to recognise the adverse effect of gender roles, workplace discrimination and trends of violence towards women as important factors. Statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that the gender wage gap in Korea is one of the highest among its members with women being paid, on average, a third less than their male counterparts. With the traditional Korean perception that educated women should relinquish their jobs once becoming mothers or still bear the brunt of the housework if they maintain a career, women appear to have become resentful of the assigned familial roles. 


The gender wage gap in Korea is one of the highest among its members with women being paid, on average, a third less than their male counterparts

This bitterness towards men is compounded by waves of sexual violence in South Korea, with a study by the Korea Women’s Hotline in collaboration with the police force, finding out that a woman is killed every 1.8 days (one of the highest rates of femicide globally). Digital sex crimes have also been on the rise since 2011, with illegal filming of women in toilets and changing rooms readily available online. In 2018, a special squad of female inspectors had to be employed to check the public toilets in Korea’s capital, Seoul, to prevent the use of spy cams which are used to post footage online non-consensually.


It is also important to note that South Korean courts are visibly lenient in the sentencing of sex crimes, as traditional views dictate that domestic violence and sexual assault are private matters to be sorted out behind closed doors. Cases like the brutal random stabbing of a woman in Seoul’s Gangnam in 2016, where the murderer gave the excuse “I did it because women have always ignored me”, strike fear into women for their safety daily. With police blaming mental illness for his crime, women became fearful of public spaces, some claiming “I survived only by luck” as women are targeted for their gender alone.

Traditional views dictate that domestic violence and sexual assault are private matters to be sorted out behind closed doors


South Korea’s 4B feminist movement is a radical wave of women fighting back against the patriarchy, discrimination and violence. They turn away from dealing with men and conventional beauty standards, following the four words beginning with ‘bi’, or ‘no’ in English. “Bihon” rejects heterosexual marriage, “bichulsan” refuses childbirth, “biyeonae” denies dating, and “bisekseu” rejects heterosexual sexual relationships. Although the number of members remains unknown, they claimed to have 4,000 as of 2019, which is expected to have grown since. 4B is not the only feminist movement in South Korea either, with “Escape the Corset” first gaining popularity in 2018 and encouraging women to also turn away from imposed beauty standards like keeping their hair long and wearing makeup.


According to an interview with one of 4B’s members, Youngmi, earlier this year, the movement believes that “Korean men are essentially beyond redemption, and Korean culture, on the whole, is hopelessly patriarchal – often downright misogynistic”. 4B hopes to change society through demonstrations and online activism, showing women there is a way out of oppression – they are not trying to change the “irredeemable” men. Members state a reluctance towards or even boycott of marriage as men want to be treated “like a king” and domestic violence is so common.


This discourse has also entered the political sphere with one commentator declaring the March 2022 election of Yoon Suk-yeol as president as “South Korea’s incel election”. President Yoon has declared structural sexism “a thing of the past” and has thrown out government gender quotas. Yoon himself  criticised feminism for the country’s low birth rate and suggested that it “prevents healthy relationships between men and women, further adding that it was “not a problem that can be solved by giving out government subsidies.” Although more than 800 organisations have stated public disagreement, he has tried to abolish Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.


According to exit polls from the presidential election, 59% of men (ages 18 to 29) voted for Yoon but 58% of women (of the same age group) voted for the liberal candidate. This gender divide is becoming more and more glaringly obvious in a country where there are no major racial divides. While sexism is not a new phenomenon, the rising misogyny and hatred for feminism among men are relatively unexplored in South Korea. Younger men are becoming to see themselves as victims of feminism, particularly when it links to affirmative action, involuntary celibacy, and economic stability. Turning to conservative politics as a remedy, these young men are electing candidates based on anti-feminist platforms. For example, the Seoul mayoral by-election in April 2021 revealed that a shocking 72.5% of male voters in their 20s voted conservative.


These men are also making noise digitally with websites like ‘Ilbe.com’, which attracts around 20 million visits per month, particularly impressive for a country with just under 52 million people. As an “anonymous, 4chan-esque web forum where they can rant without social repercussions” the website members often poke fun at left-wing politics and share complaints about ‘reverse discrimination’. Despite the website facing sanctions and being taken down multiple times, members tend to migrate and find online solutions. Women responded with their own attempt at online trolling, reversing common gender stereotypes like “men should stay in the kitchen” and objectifying men in the same way they do women. The website ‘Megalia’ was shut down in 2017 but did nothing to change the minds of men, perhaps even infuriating them further and fuelling the storyline of victimization.


Despite all these circumstances and the clear deeper issues, the South Korean government have made attempts to encourage marriage and children for women through various schemes. One such example is financial help for newlywed couples in Seoul, allowing them to buy or rent homes in the city, leaving income left over to put towards childcare. Another scheme offers hot pink designated seats for pregnant women in subways, intending to make trips more comfortable for those who are not easily recognized in their early stages. An online ‘birth map’ was launched in 2016 but was quickly taken down after intense criticisms, particularly among women. The map “used shades of pink to rank towns and cities by the number of women of childbearing age” and horrified many women who spoke out about being treated like livestock. 

While sexism is not a new phenomenon, the rising misogyny and hatred for feminism among men are relatively unexplored in South Korea


It has been suggested that low birth rates will not see improvement until it is agreed that there is a systematic problem and plans are made to condemn violence, encourage the share of household duties, and impose laws against gender discrimination in the workplace. Taking into consideration Nordic countries like Finland and Iceland which have experienced a baby boom in recent years, the answer appears to be directly linked to paid parental leave policies, access to childcare, cooperation of fathers and social norms. With South Korean women still struggling under the weight of traditional expectations, these factors are not expected to be met anytime soon. With an estimated population decrease by the United Nations of half before the end of the century, South Korea faces severe economic consequences in its future.


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