The horrific case of videos showing the sexual exploitation of women in South Korea being sold on the social media platform Telegram was recently uncovered, prompting a public outcry and leading to feminist action in the country. Known as the Nth Room Crimes, this case shows just how far South Korean society still is from eliminating the oppression of women and addressing skewed gender relations. The strong backlash from men against efforts to redress gender inequality makes matters even worse. This article shows that toxic masculinity in South Korea urgently needs to be addressed for any real change to take place and suggests some possible first steps.
This article carries a trigger warning. It contains descriptions of events related to sexual exploitation that may be distressing to sensitive readers.
Between 2018 and 2020, thousands of videos of women being sexually exploited were sold on the social media platform Telegram by a pimp known as Doctor. A copycat followed suit and even more videos were sold online. As the sordid details of these horrific crimes, known as the Nth Room Crimes, were uncovered, South Korean society was shaken to the core. Besides the fact that the perpetrator was a young man with a ‘good background’, the extent of the crimes also led to widespread shock and disbelief. More than 60,000 people had paid using cryptocurrency to watch these videos, and over 100 women had been sexually abused in the videos, including more than 20 minors.
In response, South Koreans signed an online petition pressing for the identities of the perpetrators to be made public; over two million signatures were collected in a short period. The perpetrators’ real names were pasted in the media for all to see and condemn. Yet this is not enough. These events should lead us to urgently question the extent of misogyny in South Korea and to come up with ways to counter it. This article looks at how gender stereotyping and misogyny are well alive in South Korea and what effect it has on the efforts to press for real and enduring change.
A highly unequal society
Despite the flourishing of activities promoting gender equality in South Korea, women are still suffering the burden of highly skewed gender relations. Economic development has resulted in the increased participation of women in the labour market; however, only 4.5% of women occupied executive positions in South Korean companies as recently as 2019. Digital technologies have also contributed to the rise of feminist movements and awareness-raising about gender issues (Kim, 2017; Hasunuma and Shin, 2019). Nevertheless, they have also increased cyber gender-based crimes, including the phenomenon of spycams, misogynistic commentary on social media platforms, and the Nth Room Crimes discussed above. It is clear that the commodification of female bodies has been accelerated through those online activities.
The current situation in South Korea has several roots: nation-building based on neoliberalism, Confucianism, and toxic masculinity. Specifically, neoliberal national building efforts apply a ‘(neo)-Confucian’ philosophy that supports traditional gender hierarchies and divisions (Kim, 1996; Lee, 2014). This patriarchal system has led South Korean women to become and remain second-class citizens and the men to become the breadwinners or “salaryman” ‘who were middle-class men and full-time salaried employees during the post-war period’ (Taga, 2005, cited in Lee and Parpart, 2018).
In response to these developments, the country’s feminist movement has led several activities. It joined the #MeToo movement, the #Iamfeminist movement, and the post-it movement. After a public testimony by female prosecutor Seo Ji Heyon of harassment and intimidation by male seniors in 2018, which made news headlines, not only activists, but also many citizens started to speak up, showing how widespread sexual harassment and assault were and criticising structural gender inequality (Hasunuma and Shin, 2019). However, little has changed; as the case of the Nth Room Crimes shows, gender inequality and misogynistic attitudes are well and alive.
Contending discourses on the position of men: a nation divided
Some South Korean men have opposite views of the extent of gender discrimination in Korean society. In the view of young men, the social privileges enjoyed by men of the previous generation have been sharply diminished, and they feel isolated by the current government’s female-oriented policies (Kwon, 2019). Moreover, changing expectations about the role of men in running households and raising children has intensified gender conflict (Kwon, 2019). Furthermore, some Korean men feel disadvantaged when competing against women for job positions and feel that women have more opportunities to be appointed. Moreover, women are seen to benefit from self-improvement through employment and other opportunities made available to them, while men are conscripted, leading to widespread resentment among men towards women. Thus, while men’s opportunities to further themselves are perceived to decrease, those of women are sharply increasing.
Indeed, female participation in economic activity steadily increased between 2011 and 2019. However, The Economist in 2018 found that the gap between male and female labour participation remains large, with South Korea faring worst compared to other OECD countries (see graph below). Men still have an advantage over women in the labour market, yet they feel that women are unfairly benefiting from new opportunities for participation.
As seen above, men and women have different perspectives on gender inequality in South Korea. Lee and Parpart (2018) criticised inequitable gender divisions in terms of employment and emphasised that there is a need to deconstruct the silence on gender relations (p. 317). Nowadays, many South Korean women are attempting to make their voices heard and participate in the feminist movement, but some men are against it.
An ongoing dialogue between genders that is sorely needed is not yet taking place as men and women navigate gender conflicts separately instead of collaboratively.
But something is being done to attempt to change these conflicts. The Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) under the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family of the Republic of Korea (MOGEF) has developed ‘GENDERON’, a knowledge-sharing platform seeking to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence through furthering education on gender equality. This platform offers free monthly educational video clips to introduce gender conflicts and gender-related laws to the public and encourages citizens to participate in discussions by offering incentives and staging competitions. Moreover, the MOGEF has attempted to develop an open forum for youth participation, giving young people the opportunity to directly propose policies related to gender equality and consult with relevant ministries.
Yet it is questionable whether these platforms are actually making a difference when it comes to such a deep-seated problem. Only those who seek to change the structural inequalities are likely to engage in discussions, and the discussions are likely to address just the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, the support of young adult men for the current government continues to decline. It is clear than an active, open conversation between men and women is necessary to address gender hatred and conflict. Education programmes and measures to prevent online gender crimes can be a start. The media should also make an effort to adhere to the broadcasting ethics code in a way that would foster healthy discussions on gender inequality without amplifying gender conflicts. Above all, the government should pay attention to preventing men from feeling alienated in its preparation and implementation of gender-related policies and should encourage all genders to participate in an open conversation on gender issues that continue to divide this country.
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Kwon, J (2019) “South Korea’s young men are fighting against feminism”. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/21/asia/korea-angry-young-men-intl-hnk/index.html (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
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About the authors:
Inhwa Jeong is currently studying Economics of Development in the MA program from Development Studies at ISS. She has five years of development cooperation experience, specialising in project management. Her interests lie in the economic empowerment of marginalised people and particularly keen on gender and environmental issues.
Kanae Inage is in the MA program of Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies at ISS. Her research interests focus on gender-based violence and feminist movements specifically in East Asian areas.
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