SEOUL: South Korea’s anti-feminist president-elect has vowed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality. But actually getting rid of it will be tricky, experts say, and the incoming administration is already backing off its promise. Since it was set up in 2001, the department has been a driver of social progress for South Korean women — for example, making it possible for single mothers to register their kids in their name.
Along the way, it has also become a flashpoint in South Korea’s increasingly bitter debates over sexism and gender, with detractors such as incoming President Yoon Suk-yeol claiming it is an obsolete backwater of “radical feminism”. The ministry’s supporters, however, point to a track record of welfare policies that benefit a diverse cross-section of society — from teenage runaways to the children of North Korean defectors.
“My ex just moved out one day and never came back,” said single mother Jin Mi-ae, adding that her former husband refused to contribute financially to their child’s upbringing. Failing to pay child support was criminalised in South Korea only last year. Many eligible parents — mostly women — still do not receive it but thanks to the ministry’s efforts, there are now mechanisms in place to help.
Jin filed a case with the Child Support Agency — set up by the ministry in 2015 — and said its assistance was crucial in her quest to get her ex-husband to help. Yoon has said he will not renege on his abolition pledge, but last week, his transition team said they would keep the ministry for now. Scrapping the ministry would require legislation to reorganise the government — a tricky ask as Yoon does not have a majority.
“The likely clash at the National Assembly may taint the new administration’s image,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University told AFP. With local elections coming up in June, he added, it is unlikely Yoon’s People Power Party would want to expend political capital on a bruising legislative fight and has put the issue “on hold”.
In recent years, South Korea’s #MeToo generation has mobilised on a host of issues, from legalising abortion to demanding prosecutions for “revenge porn”. This has triggered online backlash against so-called “radical feminism”, with young South Korean men bemoaning their own lot — chiefly compulsory military service, from which women are exempt.
Yoon appealed to disgruntled male voters, branding himself an anti-feminist and pledging to abolish the ministry. It became a “highly symbolic target” as the conservative candidate courted young men who felt the government was unfairly “privileging the interests of women”, Sharon Yoon, a Korean studies professor at the University of Notre Dame, told AFP.
Yoon claimed South Korean women do not suffer from “systemic gender discrimination” — despite much evidence to the contrary on the gender wage gap and female workforce participation. He won the election in March — but by the narrowest margin ever, after young women mobilised against him. Even so, activists say his victory is a huge blow. “It’s devastating to have a president-elect who actively spreads prejudice and hatred,” Yujin, a 26-year-old female voter and activist, told AFP.
‘We are the fire’
With a budget of some 1.41 trillion won ($1 billion) — compared with 54.61 trillion won for defence spending — the ministry has the least funding of any government department. Even so, it has introduced a slew of programmes that supporters say help the most vulnerable, from stipends to tackle “period poverty” to projects that assist victims of domestic abuse.
Its most defining achievement was its role in the abolition of South Korea’s “hoju” registry, the patriarchal family record system. But this vital work is not recognised, activist Kim Do-kyung told AFP. Like domestic labour, “it’s a lot of real and important work, but no one really considers it work,” she said.
The ministry declined AFP’s request for comment. Yoon’s battle cry against it appears to have galvanised women — the left-leaning Democratic Party said it has signed up thousands of new female members, and other activists have announced forays into politics. “We are ready to be the leaders of this country,” activist Haein Shim told AFP.
“Yoon’s administration will do all they can to make us burn to keep our mouths shut, but we don’t burn because we are the fire.” Many experts now expect Yoon to “rebrand” rather than abolish the ministry, pointing to how his victory has refocused global attention on sexism in the country. “South Korea does not exist in a vacuum,” Linda Hasunuma, a political scientist at Temple University, told AFP. “The world is watching how it treats its women and girls.” – AFP