The South Korean women’s movement: ‘We are not flowers, we are a fire’


Last fall, Jen Izaakson travelled to South Korea to document the rise of the radical feminist movement as part of a Cambridge University working group, after winning a research grant, interviewing over 40 female activists. She co-authored this piece with Tae Kyung Kim, a Korean radical feminist from Seoul, currently living and studying in Berlin.

News of the growing feminist movement in South Korea has reached Western media, but the roots of this radical uprising are undercovered. Mainstream media reporting in the West often covers the aspects of South Korean feminism that mirror our own achievements back to us, leaving the particular achievements of Korean women and the most radical aspects of the movement less visible. In September, over 40 women from the South Korean radical feminist movement were interviewed as part of academic research. The results of those findings are summarized in this article. Due to the brevity of this piece, lots of information cannot be covered, but we have tried to include the material that will best demonstrate how the movement emerged; its historical context; and what tactics, strategies, and political formations constitute radical feminism in South Korea.

Male violence politicizes and radicalizes

In 2016, the infamous “Gangnam murder” instigated outcry among women. A 34-year-old man named Kim Sung-min stabbed a 23-year-old woman (whose name remains under a publication ban) to death inside a gender-neutral washroom at a karaoke bar. Kim Sung-min waited inside the washroom, allowing several men to enter and exit before a woman came in. In court, he explained, “I did it because women have always ignored me.” This is a similar explanation to those offered by other “incels” (involuntary celibates) who have perpetrated violent murders, but in South Korea, government authorities explicitly denied the misogynistic motive, despite Kim Sung-min’s own testimony.

In response to the murder, women flooded the streets outside Gangnam Station and the surrounding area of Seocho-dong in protest. Many of these women did not consider themselves feminists at the time, but the nature of the murder and misogynist motivation politicized them.

By 2018, “molka” (the secret filming of women in washrooms and change rooms, or up their skirts in public) had become a widespread problem in Korea. Interviewees told me this is in part because Korean men lack the confidence to directly sexually harass women in the street, so their attempts to access women sexually take place in more “sneaky” ways. Though there are laws against this form of voyeurism in South Korea, the police rarely enforce them. The situation reached a tipping point when a young female student was charged for photographing a nude male model at her art school. According to the women I interviewed, the man would routinely leave the classroom naked, so students were forced to see his genitals. Finally one female student took a photo of the man in class, posting it online to decry his behaviour. She was arrested, put on trial, imprisoned, and forced to apologize to the man, who said the images of him exposing his genitals publicly had caused him “psychological damage.” The woman was initially fined the equivalent of 18,000 euros, but the flasher insisted to the court that the woman be sent to prison, and she was jailed for 10 months.

Considering men use spy cameras with almost total impunity, this incident sparked a wave of molka protests. Hundreds of thousands of mainly young women came together, incensed that the laws around voyeurism would be used against women, not men. To date, 360,000 women have participated in protests against spy cams. These demonstrations consist of highly structured processions, political chants typed up on flyers and distributed among the crowds, and enlivening stage speeches that often begin the chants, which the protestors join in on, reaching crescendos that sound like battle cries. At some rallies, women go on stage to have their hair publicly cut short; other times makeup collections are ceremoniously thrown in garbage bags.

A need for woman-only organizing

The real world events of the Gangnam Station murder and molka protests took shape against a pivotal web-based backdrop. Beginning in 2015, a war of words had developed between men and women online. A major dispute had erupted when MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) reached South Korea. On DC Inside Gallery, a popular internet forum with millions of users across the country, male users began threads naming a Korean woman as Patient Zero, claiming she visited the Middle East as a prostitute, then returned home infected. Other men joined in, writing comments like, “Korean women should be dead,” “Korean women spend money vainly,” and “Korean woman are stupid and have spread this virus.” In response, women started their own threads on the forum, discussing this overt misogyny. Eventually, it was discovered MERS had in fact been brought into the country by a man, and women filled the men’s message boards, vindicated. But the misogyny was not forgotten.

In response, women created Megalia, similar to Reddit, but free from misogyny. Megalia became an online space for building camaraderie among women, with friendship and tongue-in-cheek humour at its heart. It became common for women to call each other “vulvas” on the site, saying things like, “Well done — you are the strongest vulva,” or “Brilliant idea! You’re a great vulva.” However, Megalia had male users, and many of the site’s administrators were gay men. These men ostensibly were sympathetic to women’s experience of misogyny at first, but once conversation threads began to discuss the misogyny of gay men and gay male culture (like drag), women’s comments began to be removed.

The heavy moderation of women’s speech is of no surprise to many feminists on Facebook, Mumsnet, and Twitter. Women realized in order to have free and fair discussions about the realities of their lives and the misogyny they observed, they would need a space moderated by themselves, without male administrators. This experience demonstrated the need for women-only organizing. Women began to leave Megalia in droves, and by January 2016, thousands had signed up to an online forum called Womad, described by my interviewees as a “radical lesbian feminist” space.

The astonishing prevalence of lesbianism in the South Korean movement is one of its most striking and significant aspects. All the feminist activists I spoke to for the 40+ interviews conducted identified as lesbians.

In South Korea, radical feminism and lesbian feminism are very much linked, spawning the “4비”/“4B” movement (4비 is roughly pronounced to the Anglophone ear as “4B”). 4B is based on four rules that orientate the radical feminist movement and act as a guide women can adopt to disrupt patriarchy and live safer lives away from men. The principles are, roughly, to not marry men, date men, have sex with men, or become pregnant. Today, the 4B movement has an estimated 50,000 followers.

A 2016 study revealed that 50 per cent of the female population in South Korea do not see marriage as necessary — women, in particular, have realized marriage is a raw deal, leading the government to take action. In response to concerns about a rising average population age and declining birth rate, the South Korean government commissioned a number of soap operas promoting an idyllic view of romantic heterosexual love. A number of reality TV shows — Heart Signal; We Got Married; Same Bed, Different Dreams; and The Return of Superman — were commissioned to encourage marriage and reproduction. These series tend to follow a progressing narrative wherein heterosexual couples first express wanting a baby, then to conception, gestation, and birth, each step documented and presented in a positive light.

Take Off the Corset

Between 2015-2016 and 2017-2018, South Korean women spent 53.5 billion Korean won less on beauty products and cosmetic surgeries, investing in cars instead, choosing independence over objectification. Part of this cultural rejection of feminine beauty practices was spurred by the 4B movement, as well as “Take Off the Corset.” Inspired by Sheila Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny (translated in Korean as Corset: Beauty and Misogyny), this movement describes the removal of the modern “corset”: beauty practices like waxing, makeup, high heels, cosmetic surgeries, long hair, restrictive eating regimes, etc. South Korea has a massive cosmetic surgery industry, the most popular cosmetic intervention for women being the “double eyelid” procedure — an operation that alters the eyelids so that they appear more “Western.” Similar to skin bleaching, this profit-driven practice is informed by racism, and can lead to post-operative infections, loss of eyelids, impairments to sight, and even blindness.

Many interviewees reference the movement as a starting point in their journey to radical feminism, saying, “I took off my corset last January,” or, “I have been without corset for two years now.” For South Korean women, the term “backlash” is connected to Take Off the Corset — it does not reference a backlash from outside, against feminism (as in the West), but a personal backlash, wherein a woman backslides towards femininity. One woman told me, “My best friend and I took off our corsets in 2017, but she has since had a backlash, and began wearing makeup again because of family pressure.”

Other slogans prevalent across the movement tend to revolve around women’s power and determination. A group of interviewees signed a card for me with some of these, writing, “We will meet at the top,” “Be ambitious,” and, “We are one another’s courage.” I recognized these slogans right away because they often appear on the social media profiles of activists. One prominent reoccurring call to action is, “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” This slogan is paraphrased, borrowed from Hillel the Elder (Pirkei Avot 1:14), a famous Babylonian figure in Jewish history.

A historical foundation for woman-centred culture

Part of the reason feminism has developed as it has in South Korea is historical and cultural. The women I spoke to explained that, historically, there has not been the same culture of male “chivalry” (male politeness and social protection of women) as in the West, meaning there is far less pretense about male domination. During the early 1950s, soldiers fighting in the Korean war made women walk over landmines before them to check for safe paths and to clear exploding bombs with their bodies. There is no historical shame around this practice. I asked if, had the Titanic been Korean, would there have been a “women and children first” policy determining who got into lifeboats? This was met with raucous laughter and strong denials. One interviewee viewed the absence of chivalry as translating to less kindness from men, in terms of how patriarchy plays out. At the same time, women are less likely to be susceptible to marriage because men are much more clear, even before the wedding, about how unequal things will be. It is not that Korean men behave more oppressively towards women than male populations in the West, it is just more overt and unapologetic. Given men’s domination is less concealed, some interviewees argued this allowed women to detect the pitfalls marriage and domestication more easily. What it means to choose to marry is much more clear.

Another interviewee explained that, historically, women were expected to labour in fields, often working more than men, so men were less seen as providers of material wealth than they might be elsewhere. Women did the work in the home as well as out. The economic benefit of a husband, even one with a job, was far less than in other societies where women have traditionally not been allowed to work, or have had limited access to the job market. Historically, in Korea, there was a very strict class system, and women did not have opportunities to marry outside their class, thereby accessing greater material wealth, as women in other countries might. With that advantage missing, there was one less reason for women to view marriage in aspirational terms. These historical conditions combine to produce a particular set of sexual politics in South Korea that means it is common for women to reject marriage, as there is a clearer benefit versus cost calculation.

Another reason there has been room for a radical women’s movement to thrive is because there is literal space for it. Women’s universities were set up across the country throughout the last century, and most cities are home to several women-only institutions (some have male lecturers, and sometimes male students from other universities can take a course for a term on the campus, but there are evening curfews when all men must leave). In the student union buildings, male professors and male family members of students are not allowed to enter. They are a 24-hour women-only zone.

Some women’s universities have been protested by men’s rights activists (MRAs) holding placards saying things like, “Women, give up your luxury handbags!” Apparently feminism has developed so far away from men in South Korea that some men are not quite sure what feminists are demanding, with MRAs ironically calling for women to stop wasting money on expensive feminine items. Meanwhile, the radical feminist movement is calling for boycotts of any business that uses sexist advertising, and is encouraging women to only eat at women-owned restaurants, drink in women-owned bars, and shop at women-owned stores, so women’s money goes into the pockets of other women.

While women’s universities emerged out of a Christian sentiment that considered it improper for unmarried women to mix with men, they provided fertile ground for feminism to flourish. Many of these campuses are surrounded by streets only women frequent, with shops and cafes almost exclusively full of women. As a result of this cultural norm, most cities have at least one or several women-only bars. (South Korea has not yet been captured by gender identity politics, so that means genuinely female-only.)

Marginalization inspires political organizing

The 4B movement and radical feminist ideas have spread far across South Korea during the last half-decade, taking hold in different towns and cities, despite differences in culture and politics.

Daegu, the country’s fourth largest city, exists in stark contrast to its capital, Seoul. Daegu is arguably the most conservative city in South Korea, and only three out of every seven people are female, due to sex-selective abortion. In Daegu, sons are so desired that if a family has two daughters in a row, the second daughter will often be given a name roughly meaning, “Wishing for a son,” or “Please a boy next.” As men outnumber women four to three, sexual politics follow suit. Women living in Daegu explained to me that, while women in Seoul may call the police to report domestic violence, women in Daegu fear the police will side with the abuser and even perpetrate further violence against her.

Despite this, women in Daegu are steadfast. They spoke of refusing to wear makeup, despite the fact this almost certainly results in a lack of employment. The city is poorer than its neighbour Busan, and Seoul to the north, yet the way Daegu’s feminists approach the problem of unemployment due to refusing femininity is by organizing. They formed women’s “cartels,” pooling resources, living together in cheap housing, and collectively campaigning on the streets to reach new women. These “cartels” were described to me as organized groups, but with flexible, open structures and focused on outreach. This contrasts with what we see in the West, where radical feminism tends to flourish through small groups of friends/lovers operating together as a private network, rather than organizing primarily around political alliances and engaging in public recruitment and campaigning.

South Korea has the highest gender pay gap of all the OECD countries (the top wealthiest 37 countries) globally (according to GDP), with women earning on average a third less than men. While feminists in the West who have jobs, property, and supportive families, and who do not face direct discrimination for refusing feminine practices, will say that they cannot be openly radical feminist due to financial precariousness and fear of reprisal, women in Daegu — whose income is precarious, who live in a far more male-dominated culture, persist. The experience of meeting feminists in Daegu emphasized that social and economic insecurity need not hamper our willingness to speak out on feminist issues. Possibly, the higher economic status of “radical feminists” in the West — who have more to lose (professional careers, respectability, status, money) — drives their anonymity online and silence in public life.

In South Korea, current law allows a woman to get an abortion only if she has consent from a male relative or her boyfriend/husband/partner. If a woman manages to obtain an abortion without a man’s permission (by having the abortion abroad or having a male friend pose as the boyfriend, for example), she faces a trial and either imprisonment or a fine of close to $2000. Feminists have fought hard to change this law and, in April, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled the law making abortion a crime unconstitutional. The court gave Parliament until the end of 2020 to implement the new law, an obvious victory for the movement.

In February, the Women’s Party formed, gaining 8,000 members by March — a number which has now grown to 10,000. The party aims to represent the interest of all generations, so has five leaders, each from a different decade: a teenager, then a woman in her 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Though the party secured over 200,000 votes, they were not able to win any seats. Nonetheless the Women’s Party has a great deal of support from young women in particular, who, unlike in the West, are the biggest proponents of radical feminism. Theoretically, an estimated 60,000 girls could have voted for the Women’s Party, were they not under 18.

Changing language changes culture

In response to recent feminist gains, South Korean men’s rights activists who oppose the new feminist movement have changed tactics, and have begun to claim they simply want “equality,” rather than the “violent” exclusion and prejudice they say radical feminism calls for. This adoption of liberal rhetoric is remarkably similar to that of trans activists in the West who oppose the prioritization of women in feminism. The men in South Korea are relatively organized and sometimes take action. Jae-gi, a man who started an MRA website, jumped off a bridge to demonstrate the plight of men due to feminism, accidentally impaling himself through the anus on a spike under the water and dying. Jae-gi has since become a verb meaning male suicide, and feminists will say to MRAs, “go Jae-gi yourself,” meaning basically, “fuck off and die.”

That may seem harsh, but it is an example of “mirroring,” a tactic wherein women employ language reversals and word play unique to the Korean language. The creation of verbs like “Jae-gi” is a direct response to the verbal and physical abuse women suffer online and in real life at the hands of men.

With over one million words, the Korean vocabulary is more than twice as big as English. Korean grammatical rules allow for the easy creation of new words and expose how language is used to suppress women. The word “parents” in Korean is ‘부모님’(bu-mo-nim) — “bu” means father and “mo” means mother, placing the father first because the man is considered more important. Korean feminists have started to use the term ‘모부님’(mo-bu-nim) instead, changing the order, so “mother” comes first. The word “baby stroller” in Korean is ‘유모차’(yu-mo-cha)  — “yu” means child, and “mo” means mother, and “cha” means wheelchair, which communicates that taking care of children is reserved for mothers. Feminists  changed the word to “유아차” (yu-ah-cha) — “yu-ah” means little child, so the word “mother” is removed, and the word now means, “child’s wheelchair” (roughly similar to the British term “pram”). Adjustments like this are possible for many words, allowing meanings to be upended.

The term “6.9” (literally the numbers 6.9) is another example of women mirroring and responding to a culture that values women according to the size of their bodies. “6.9” refers to the average penis length (in cm) of a Korean man. Using the term on social media profiles or when responding to arguments with males is a way to shame men as women are shamed when men discuss the size of their breasts or other body parts, and to belittle the power they believe they have due to the penis.

Unfortunately, there are also new, misogynistic additions to language, thanks to male online communities like ILBE, where men share nude photos of female family members to gain social cache and “likes.” Users came up with expressions like “Women should get hit every three days like dried fish to make them more delicious” and, “Put a light bulb inside the vagina and break it,” which has since entered the popular vernacular.

These kinds of expressions are considered banal in South Korea, so young Korean feminists developed new language in response, redefining previously sexist terms.

Radical feminists strategically redeployed the term “feminine” to signify strong, powerful, ambitious, women. They also redefined “masculine” to imply jealousy, thinness, youthfulness, and a desire to decorate oneself. Mirroring reminds people how many sexist terms they use daily, without even noticing, but also engenders a strong negative perception of sadistic expressions toward women and reverses them through humour. With “femininity” redefined, Korean women strive toward characteristics like strength and excellence, concentrating on self-development to achieve their own ambitions. Mirroring is a way women use language to take control away from men.

A model for the West

The South Korean feminist movement developed out of particularly misogynist conditions, compared to the West, combined with better opportunities for political organizing, creating a situation where radical action was both necessary and viable. These unique contradictory circumstances produced social conditions wherein women’s radical action was both possible and urgent.

There is not total agreement within the South Korean feminist movement, but what distinguishes it from the West is that differences are discussed — not just online, but in real life — direct debate is not considered a destructive force to be avoided at all costs, but is accepted as a necessary part of politics. Because of the presence of that real thriving movement there exists greater sharing and cooperation.

Women in the West could learn much from our Korean sisters: their ability to organize collectively; their crucial focus on politics, inventiveness, and ingenuity; and, perhaps most significantly, their practice of taking politics to the streets.

Tae Kyung Kim is a student at Sungshin Women’s University. Follow her on Instagram or contact her via email at [email protected].

Jen Izaakson is a graduating CRMEP PhD candidate. Follow her on Instagram or send her an email: [email protected].

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