Why So Many Young Men in South Korea Hate Feminism
2- South Korea’s experts who have focused on this issue point to two tendencies among young Korean men: worship of the idea of meritocracy and misogyny.
Young South Koreans, born in the late 1990s when South Korea was well into being a prosperous liberal democracy, have little sense of the historical struggles that defined the older generations, such as the Korean War or the fight against military dictators for democracy.
Instead, their struggle is with a series of examinations: entrance exams for high schools, entrance exams for colleges, and entrance exams for high paying, secure jobs.
This is the generation that has spent most of their lives taking or preparing for exams, in the infamously grueling hagwon or cram school system. As a result, younger South Koreans have internalized the logic of those exams and elevated it into a type of distorted moral sensibility, where the poor are to blame for their own suffering.
Social scientist Oh Chan-ho was one of the early voices who pointed to the meritocratic moral compass of South Korea’s young generation in his 2013 book, We are in Favor of Discrimination. Oh recalled being stunned by his students’ response to the 2009 disaster in the Yongsan district of Seoul, where a fire broke out as small business owners were protesting their eviction from a condemned building, killing six people and injuring 28 others. Rather than focusing on the dire economic straits of the subsistence-level business owners or the police’s excessive use of force, Oh’s students would say the business owners “asked for too much” and “accepted the risk” of getting evicted because, the logic goes, the business owners could have done better at school and gotten a different job if they didn’t want their livelihoods to end abruptly.
In their 2019 book Men in 20s, journalist Cheon Gwan-yul and data scientist Jeong Han-wool characterized this meritocratic sensibility as a preference for “decontextualized fairness.” For the book, Cheon and Jeong conducted an in-depth survey on the values of Korean men in their 20s. The authors found that South Korea’s young generation worshipped meritocracy while blurred the distinction between internal determinants (such as effort and motivation) and external determinants (such as socioeconomic class.) Although “fairness” is an important keyword for Korea’s youth, in practice, their idea of fairness takes on a reactionary, might-makes-right form.
The other characteristic of South Korean men in their 20s is their aggressive misogyny. To be sure, sexism has been a long-standing issue in South Korea. Yet this generation’s aggrieved version of sexism has taken on a different character from their fathers’ more traditional version of sexism featuring machoism and strict gender roles. If older Korean men see themselves as patriarchs who oversee women, younger Korean men see themselves as victims of feminism. Cheon, one of the co-authors of Men in 20s, noted that survey results showed young men rejected both male privilege and the duty that typically come with the patriarchal form of sexism. Instead, the survey showed their version of sexism was marked by over-the-top hostility against feminism: 58.6 percent of Korean men in their 20s said they strongly opposed feminism, with 25.9 percent marking the intensity of their opposition as 12 on a scale of 0 to 12.
The interplay between worshipping meritocracy and misogyny of South Korean men in their 20s provides a clearer explanation of the gender gap and the timing of the young generation’s conservative turn. Korean women still face significant amounts of discrimination; for example, a recent survey by the Economist put South Korea in last place among industrialized nations in the glass-ceiling index, which measures the gender gap in education, wage, and managerial positions. Yet Korea’s young women have been making steady gains in recent years. The proportion of women attending college, for example, has been higher than the same proportion of men since 2009.