Radical feminism paves the way for a resurgent South Korean women’s movement


On October 6, the fifth molka rally was held in Seoul, near the Hyehwa subway station. Sixty thousand women took to the streets of the capital to protest police inaction over molka — the trend wherein men secretly take spycam and up-skirt videos of women in public places, then upload the footage to pornography sites. Journalists from around the world have been reporting on these large-scale women’s rights rallies, which have taken place almost every month since May. Chartered buses transport women from towns and cities all over the southern half of the Korean peninsula to attend.

A poster advertising South Korea’s fourth anti-molka rally in August 2018, advising participants to wear red

Amidst the momentum of #MeToo, it’s easy to lose sight of the political work underpinning these kinds of mass actions, and the political context that makes these uprisings — which may seem spontaneous — possible. Korean radical feminists (who organized online, primarily) had been campaigning against molka for a full three years before the first rally was staged.

While the molka rallies are organized online by individuals (no one claims responsibility for them in the media, and no single organizing committee sponsors them), some basic political unity is apparent.

Significantly, the rallies have been able to sustain themselves as women-only events — barriers to participation are set so high that even male photographers and journalists are not allowed inside rally barricades. This important (and, so far, unreported) characteristic of the rallies suggests they are not spontaneous demonstrations of rage and indignation by a random group of women, but part of a broader, organized, historic political movement towards women’s liberation. Certainly, harassment sustained by women at the Candlelight Protests that toppled South Korea’s government in 2017 led, in part, to the decision to exclude men from these rallies, but the boldness of Korean feminists is also key.

Anti-molka women’s rally in Seoul, 2018

Parodying misogyny to fight violence against women

Irreverence and parody are central features of feminist campaigns in Korea. Earlier this year, a Korean woman was arrested after posting a photo taken of a nude male model who was posing for arts students at Hongik University online. Soon after, another woman posted a fake warning online that spy cams had been planted in all men’s toilets at Hongik University and that the footage would be posted on porn sites. This warning prompted a swift police search of the university that turned up nothing. The irony of this immediate response became obvious when compared with the ongoing lack of response to women’s complaints about the website, SoraNet, which illegally hosted pornographic footage of Korean women taken by vengeful boyfriends, public harassers, and prostitution buyers, and provided a forum for men to discuss, among other things, how to arrange gang rapes of women in hotel rooms. SoraNet was shut down in 2016 after police arrested its owners, but the site operated for 16 years without interruption and it took a decade of women complaining before police finally took action.

In order to draw further attention to this hypocrisy, Korean feminists disseminated fake news articles about men using date-rape drugs bought online to facilitate the rape of other men in Korea’s military. Sites selling these drugs in Korea had been operating for years, despite women’s complaints (including from victims of drug-facilitated rape). But after the fake articles were circulated, Korean police shut down the websites within a day.

Korean feminists began using parody as a tactic after a fake news story circulated during the global “MERS” epidemic of 2015, claiming two Korean women travelling abroad had become infected with the virus, but refused treatment so they could go shopping. Korean men responded to this news with an outpouring of hate speech online. When it became clear the story wasn’t true, women rebelled by creating a website called Megalia — a combination of “MERS” and Egalia’s Daughters, the title of a satirical feminist book about the land of Egalia wherein sex roles are reversed, and “menwim” begin to protest against the ruling class, “wim.” By using parody as a tactic, users of the website (called “Megalians”) were able to disseminate feminist ideas and raise consciousness, attracting attention from young Korean women online. This had a radicalizing effect — they competed with one another to create more and more outrageous parodies.

In another example of irreverence among Korean feminists, Megalia’s banner features an image parodying men’s preoccupation with penis size: a hand gesture suggesting penis size being measured between the pointer finger and thumb. Feminists intentionally held the June rally on June 9, a day they chose to officially (and sarcastically) express sympathy for men with small penises (called 소추절), referencing a research study, widely shared online, showing that the average Korean male penis is 6.9 cm in length, which is shorter than the international standard.

Radical feminist organizing changes the conversation

In the midst of Megalia’s ongoing activism, on May 17, 2016, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a man in a public unisex washroom near the Gangnam train station in Seoul. The media framed the murder as a “random” killing, but Megalians insisted that the perpetrator specifically targeted a woman, concluding that the murder was yet another misogyny-fuelled hate crime. The 34-year-old man charged with her murder hid in the restroom and let a few men pass until a woman came in. In response to a question about what had motivated him to murder the woman, he said, “Women ignore me.” After this admission, feminists escalated their activities, and women gathered at Gangnam train station, near the scene of the crime, to leave messages in memoriam and hold vigils.

Radical feminist activity online led to unprecedented public focus in South Korea on the country’s sexist culture. Earlier this year, the Korean president, Moon Jae-in, announced that “gender violence is an issue of social structure that allows the powerful to sexually oppress or easily wield violence against the weak.” Before this announcement, feminist books flooded the Korean publishing market, and public action in support of the former wartime “comfort women” ballooned. By comparison, no similar success was achieved in neighbouring Japan, where feminists now lament the failure of the #MeToo movement in the country, as survivors who try to speak publicly are shouted down online and in mainstream media, and one of the movement’s leaders was forced to flee to London.

A backlash called feminism

Predictably, with forward movement came backlash. Just six months after the Megalia website was launched, “megal” came to hold a similar connotation as “feminazi.” As an online movement, Megalia had been radically feminist in its advocacy for women-only space and separatism, its analysis of gender politics, and its promotion of both personal and social resistance to cultural misogyny. Challenges came from inside and outside feminist circles.

Problems began within the Megalian community in response to push back against efforts to discuss misogyny in the queer movement, especially the language used by gay men — phrases like “bubble wrap bitch” (a term ridiculing women’s curvaceous bodies) and “back vagina,” which gay men use to refer to the anus, referencing anal sex. Many women were shocked when confronted with evidence of gay men using such phrases, because they believed gay men suffered the same patriarchal oppression as women and that they were allies to feminists. These criticisms led to schisms in Megalia, as some members believed they should be free to say anything against misogynists, and others felt these critiques were homophobic.

Women who wanted a space where they could criticize gay men’s misogyny created a new online forum called Womad, where feminists could discuss and share ideas and information anonymously, then have these ideas disseminated through various social media platforms. Womad functions as a recharge station for Korean radical feminists — an energizing and unifying force. The website embraces the idea of being “man-haters,” and gives women a forum to freely express their aversion to men. Men are not permitted to use the forum, and users can report comments they suspect are posted by men. At Womad, no limits on feminist speech are imposed in pursuit of political correctness. These basic rules make it possible for women to speak without censoring themselves. Today, the term “Womad” has come to refer to radical feminists in general in South Korea.

As in many countries, academia and the queer movement also became sites of backlash against radical feminism in Korea. LGBT activists and academics alike promote sexual libertarianism, the sex trade, and self-objectification as potentially empowering. One gay activist named Matsu, who often speaks at LGBT events and is a member of the Seoul-based group, “Real Perverts,” advocates gay male prostitution as a necessary aspect of gay male identity and, in October 2016, the Queer Women’s Network held an event about female sexual minorities featuring Siyeun Lyu, a “transgender lesbian sex worker,” who criticized Korea’s anti-prostitution movement, accusing feminists of harming and stigmatizing “sex workers.” That same year, Womad members launched a blog and Facebook page called, “Lolita Busters,” criticizing the objectification of girls in Korean media. (Not only do female pop singers in Korea dress in schoolgirl uniforms and perform sexually suggestive dances, but there is a fashion trend called “Lolita style,” wherein adult women dress up as and behave in ways that emulate little girls.) A liberal feminist lecturer named Hee-jung Son, who has broken into the mainstream, appearing on Korean TV shows, presented a conference paper last year, titled, “The Age of Rebellion and the Sex War,” rebutting the Lolita Busters’ position by arguing that children should be recognized as sexual beings who can be participants in “intergenerational eroticism.”

Liberal attacks on Womad members arose most recently in response to the publication of Rootless Feminism: From Megalia to Womad, a book about online feminist activism in South Korea. A number of well-known Korean feminist academics called the publisher days before the book was released, in March, accusing them of publishing “hate speech.” After Ziihiion, a feminist singer, performed at the book launch in January, she received dozens of comments on her Facebook page, criticizing her decision to support “haters.” A performance she had scheduled for a benefit supporting disabled women was cancelled as a result.

Although the women-only policy of the rallies against spy-cam pornography have been successful, similar attempts to preserve political spaces for women have not succeeded within Korea’s universities. In 2017, a group of feminist students from Ewha Women’s University and Sookmyung Women’s University tried to hold a seminar titled, “Men’s Invasion of Women’s Spaces.” On both campuses, there had been reports of men sneaking into the female-only libraries and setting up hidden cameras in bathrooms, and of men wearing women’s clothing in order to access dormitory rooms and attack female students. Students wanted to talk about these incidents, but the seminar was cancelled after queer groups complained that the event was women-only.

Poster at an anti-molka rally in Seoul, 2018.

Facing down the backlash

Attempts to thwart radical feminist activism and theory that supported the rise of the South Korean women’s movement continues to be resisted — particularly by survivors of male violence. One of these resisters is the Womad member who was arrested after posting the photo of the male nude model at Hongik University online. On August 13th, she was sentenced to 10 months in jail. The media depicted her as a perpetrator but, in fact, the man’s picture had been taken by another model during a break in an art class. Although it is customary for nude models to cover their bodies during breaks, the man had sprawled across the table, exposing his genitals, making the female nude models uncomfortable. Womad women demanded that the police investigate the male model for inappropriately exposing his genitals, but they refused.

A 10 month jail sentence is exceptionally harsh for this kind of offence. (For example, on the day of the ruling, the Busan district court imposed a suspended sentence and a $2000 fine on a man who uploaded his girlfriend’s nude pictures online without her consent.) Police recently issued an arrest warrant for the Womad website owner over this incident as well.

The ongoing misogyny and hypocrisy demonstrated by officials surrounding these cases shows no sign of dying down.

Recently, video footage was leaked, showing CEO of IT firm, WeDisk, Yang Jin-ho, slapping one of his male employees and forcing others to kill chickens with a crossbow and a sword. The video sparked public outrage online, angering Korean feminists who have been demanding authorities investigate and punish IT firms like Yang Jin-ho’s for years, as they profit from the sale of illegal molka videos, downloaded by users  on file-sharing websites like Webhard. That the public and authorities ignore the sexual exploitation of women, but reacted immediately to Jin-ho’s behaviour to employees demonstrated, yet again, how little women matter in this country.

At a press conference, the Korean Women’s Association United and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSVRC) called Jin-ho the “ringleader of Korea’s spycam porn industry,” but also reminded the public that employees of these IT companies were not just “innocent victims,” as they knowingly sold molka videos. Some of these employees had even bragged online that their ability to access to millions of molka videos for free functioned as a kind of employee benefit. These women’s organizations argue that companies like Jin-ho’s are part of an “online sexual exploitation industry cartel” that not only profit from the sale of molka videos, but also have ties to illegal content filtering companies, like Mureka, that charge victims to remove videos of them from these sites.

Despite such intense challenges, Korean radical feminists show no sign of slowing down.

A Backlash Called Feminism, by Jihye Kuk and Hyejung Park, is scheduled for publication early in 2019. The book addresses the ongoing struggle against queer erasure of lesbian feminism in women’s political organizing and liberal feminist attempts to silence radical feminists. Park discusses her decades-long experience at the forefront of South Korea’s abolitionist movement, and Kuk outlines the way Womad feminists made a resurgence of feminism in South Korea possible.

South Korean radical feminists face the same anti-radical backlash their sisters currently are facing abroad. We will only succeed through strengthening our international ties and reaffirming our support for sisters on the political front lines, wherever we are in the world.

Heyjung Park is a lesbian feminist and a freelance translator living in Seoul.

Jihye Kuk is the director of the feminist book publisher Yeolda Books and a feminst campaigner against male violence.

Caroline Norma is a feminist abolitionist and an academic at RMIT University. Her new book, Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan, will be available in October 2018, published by Routledge.

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