South Korea is one of the most talked-about countries today, especially when it comes to the entertainment industry. With the rise of K-Pop music and dramas, known as the Korean Wave, it is not surprising that many people all over the world are fans of the said industry. However, South Korea is far from where it was in the past. It started out as an agrarian society, which meant that it was a country in which the economy depended on growing and maintaining farmlands, but now, it is well-known for other industries. Today, the country is known to be one of East Asia’s wealthiest countries that rank just a bit behind China and Japan (History.com Editors). Regardless of the current status of the economy that the country has now, the people itself has been battling with another kind of war in terms of their ideologies and formations of gender, gender roles, and the frameworks of reproduction and sexuality. South Korean women are still trying to fight the patriarchy, in spite of the economic stability that the country is currently enjoying, and this could be seen in their continuing clamor for better opportunities and anti-discrimination not just in the workplace, but in society.
The Patriarchy in South Korea
Nations, experts believe, depend on how gender is constructed, as it is a representation of the political power that the nation possesses. However, the academe has long overlooked this relationship that exists between nation and gender construction. Feminist scholars have already started criticizing back in the mid-80s as to why nations continue to exclude women when it comes to nation building. Despite the western influences, South Korea continues to be a deeply patriarchal society wherein men are still seen as dominating over women materially, culturally, and socially (Oh 2-3). To date, women and sexuality are still bound by many traditional views that continue to permeate the society. South Korea continues to be a socially conservative country, and in the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2020, it ranked 108 out of 153 (Babe).
The changes that South Korea has developed as it turned into a more developed country also opened the gates to new social problems, one of which is the patriarchal society. Patriarchy is defined as the social structure wherein the man is considered as the main wielder of power, and the woman should be subordinate (qtd. in Lumen Learning). The patriarch, oftentimes the father, is the superior or leader of the family, and the female (or wife) does her duties quietly. Her duties include various types of domestic labor, such as cooking, washing the dishes, and taking care of the home and the children (Park 43).
Marriage to Keep the Patriarchy Going
In an article on Reuters, it was said by Jung Se-young that South Korea’s patriarchy roots from marriage. More and more single young women are calling on the government to narrow down the wage gap between genders. Among advanced countries, South Korea’s gender wage gap is among the highest with about 35% back in 2017. Due to this big wage gap, women have the feeling that they have no ability to support themselves in the long run, which is why many of them try to find husbands who can support them instead. This is a common habit done in many countries in Asia, where people have to marry somebody of the opposite sex in order to keep their blood line going. However, in South Korea, recent surveys are starting to show a shift in the said sentiment (Yi). It is not surprising that back then, women would flee the country when they are of marrying age to get away from the patriarchal hold their families have on them. This is reflected in the line of Yong-ja in Days and Dreams: “… I’d rather be a lesbian than get pushed around by all these stupid bastards” (Kang, Kim, and O 9). Divorce was still taboo then, so upon return, they would still be married off to whoever their fathers have chosen for them (Koo). Older generations are also still considered to be part of the family, and many of them stay with the younger couples and help in the household. Another example of this is in Kim Chi-won’s A Certain Beginning where Yun-ja met an older Korean woman while at the park. They were abroad, and Yun-ja asked the older woman if she could go back to the Korea, and the latter replied, “Are you kidding me? Those darn sons of mine won’t let me. I have to babysit their kids all day long” (Kang, Kim, and O 155). This shows that the males have more power in the Korean family.
Women Are Still Considered Second-Class Citizens
Traditional Korean society saw that the woman as bound to the home. In the past, women were schooled to be the faces of subordination and had to endure their “trainings” for future roles as a spouse and mother. Men had the freedom to do what they want and participate in whatever activities in society, but women were only to take care of household matters (Korean Overseas Information Service). However, as the nation progresses and family members try to explore outside and newer relationships outside of the Korean family, the Korean family structure is feeling the effects. The traditional family structure is slowly starting to change, and the authority of the patriarch is being challenged. This has caused a lot of tensions to build up within the family, and now, the society (Park 43).
A lot of men in Korea would rather look the other way and not say that South Korea is still very much a patriarchy, and the toxic relationship between genders are creating problems on the society. Many women are still subject to discrimination, violence, and objectification (Koo). Last October 2018, 10,000 South Korean women went on a rally in Seoul to demand the end of sexual violence and installation of spy cameras that record women in their most vulnerable acts. However, in the very same street corner came a new group of activists that were comprised of angry young men who were also clamoring that they were being left behind as feminist issues are coming into light in September 2019. According to surveys, the younger men are more opposed to feminist views compared to those from the older generations (Kwon).
South Korea has only scraped the top of a deeply-rooted patriarchy in their society. They had the first ever female president and founded a ministry of family and gender equality that runs independently. Women are also given a safe place to say in some convenience stores that are open for 24 hours (Koo).
A Struggling Battle Within
All countries, not just South Korea, have internal battles that the people deal with daily. People have their own divisions related to gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and a lot more. Looking closely at South Korea, the home’s structural layout, as well as where each member of the family is placed is according to the status, age, role, and sex are all determined by the society’s cultural practices (Oh 1&5). These divisions will take a long time to meet eye to eye; there is no single or easy solution to this. However, many people hope that passing the anti-discrimination bill can be the law needed for people to treat everyone equally, regardless of their gender and/or other factors (Koo).
The Modern South Korea’s View on Sexuality and Reproduction
As mentioned previously, patriarchs were expected to pick out spouses for their children, especially their daughters, and this is a “tradition” that is fast becoming obsolete in South Korea. As the country’s economy continues to transform, the population is also changing. Demographers call this phenomenon as the “demographic transition”, which is a period wherein the population increases, decreases, and becomes stable as the country becomes richer. South Korea is having an extreme demographic transition as the fast ageing population cannot be replaced adequately by new people, as there is currently a low marriage and birth rate (Quick). This may cause a problem for the future of the country.
The Government’s Answer to the Problem
South Korea’s fertility rate is considered as the lowest in the world. On average, a South Korean woman only has 1.1 children, which is lower compared to any other country. This rate is steadily falling. The replacement rate is the key factor for the stabilization of the population, which is the number of children that is birthed by every woman in a given population that balances out the deaths among the elderly populations. The global average rate is 2.1, and the South Korean average does not even reach that level. This means South Korean women are not giving birth to more children to make the population more stabilized without the aid of migration (Quick).
To try and reverse this, the government has offered costly measure to increase gender equality among the people, and that includes better parental leave policies, giving fertility treatments to single women and couples, and lowering of working hours per week (from 68 to 52 hours per week) (Yi; Kwon and Yeung). This is actually a big contrast to what the state initiated in 1966 as the Great Year of Family Planning and the succeeding years in order to control their population. This was also to change the customary idea of Koreans that bearing many children meant more good luck (Moon 81 & 83).
However, many of the women have sworn to having a life with no dating, sex, marriage, nor babies, like the two South Korean YouTubers Jung Se-Young and Baeck Ha-Na. They believe that the government’s current offerings are just a way to keep the traditional gender roles, and that they were not fully designed for the needs of the women, but for men. According to Jung, the government is aiming for women who are able to have babies, and this just feeds the cycle all over again (Yi). This way of thinking, which stems from a rising wave of feminism, is deemed as radical by many critics. Some women, on the other hand, are thankful for the government’s efforts to help them rear children better (The Economist). This is one issue wherein you can truly see how divided the people are regarding marriage and motherhood in today’s society.
To add to this, the trend is also not just among women, but among men as well. More and more men are choosing to avoid or delay marriage. In a study done in 2018 by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 51% of those who were not dating were men. For them, they believe that they do not have the money, time, or emotional capacity to invest in relationships. With the rising unemployment rate and with a very competitive market for jobs, many of them choose to develop their skills over seeking a partner (Kwon and Yeung). As for the women, the expectations to become a South Korean wife are extremely taxing and burdensome. There is intense pressure to take care of her husband’s family (extended), giving way to her mother-in-law, and preparing a slew of food every day. It is also still a taboo subject to have a baby when one is not yet married (The Economist).
Thoughts on the Labor Workforce
Men were the only ones allowed to work in the past, but the situation started to change during the late 19th century. Western Christian missionaries were opening modern schools, and many of which had a goal of giving women an education. The students in those schools began to learn more about religious works, teaching, the arts, and the act of enlightening other women. Constitutional rights for better and more equal opportunities were also granted to women when the Republic of Korea was established in 1948. In 1987, the Equal Employment Act was passed by the government in order to prevent female workers in the workplace from being discriminated against, especially when it comes to hiring and promoting them (Korean Overseas Information Service).
Just in the recent decades, the participation of women in the workforce has increased quite largely. Back in the 1970s, women were marginalized and were not given the same opportunities in the workforce, and they were tasked to do jobs that were feminine in nature, such as embroidery, sewing, and cooking. They were also excluded from technical jobs and were not given the same type of training with their male counterparts. The different mechanisms the people employed back then were meant to discourage women from entering the workforce and not judge them according to what they are able to do (Moon). In November of 2017, The Ministry of Gender Equality presented to the South Koreans a five-year plan that aimed to expand representation of females in various aspects of the society, from government institutions, public schools, and ministries. In February 2019, there was a proposal that the plan be also extended up to the private sector to give private companies, especially the large conglomerates, with incentives if they hire more women among their ranks and shift from a male-focused workplace to a more gender-friendly one. However, these decisions and proposals by the government are not met with open arms by all people. Some men say that these put them at a disadvantage because the women are given more leverage by the government. Some say that they could win jobs by their merit alone, but with a gender quota in place, it will be an unfair advantage as the positions will be given to women instead (Kwon).
Biased perspectives also continue to create obstacles in creating a gender-friendly corporate culture, especially for married women. Due to financial and time limitations that they may have, many married women find it difficult to keep their jobs. A lot of women back in 2003 were reported to have resigned or have been fired just within a year of getting married. Unlike the males, a large reason or association with women’s firing or resignation is shifting from a permanent position to a temporary one or a change in the marital status (Do and Choi). Another unfair disadvantage that men also say is military conscription. Some believe that it is a way of forcing manhood on the males of South Korea. The younger men in their 20s and 30s feel like they have no voice now as the ones in government are in their 40s and 50s. Many of them feel like they are being left out as society is shifting its focus on women (Kwon).
Nations are not built in a day, and neither will their ideologies be changed just as fast. There will always be division among the population, but there are certain ways that those can be handled accordingly. The patriarchy in South Korea has been in place for centuries, but pushing for a better, gender-friendly society is key to making a better society. The world is now in modern times, and women have as much right to be given the freedoms that men are given. The government is trying to take the steps to include and accept women’s roles that expand beyond that of the household, and it is good to see that it is also doing its part. Women are not second-class citizens; rather, they are capable of doing just as much as their male counterparts.
Babe, Ann. “South Korea’s new feminist party aims to shake up patriarchal nation.” NIKKEI Asia, 8 March 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/South-Korea-s-new-feminist-party-aims-to-shake-up-patriarchal-nation.
Do, Mi Hyang, and Choi, Woon Sun. “Perception of Childbirth and Childrearing among Korean Married Women.” Asian Women, http://e-asianwomen.org/xml/00823/00823.pdf.
History.com Editors. “South Korea.” HISTORY, 21 August 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/korea/south-korea.
Lumen Learning. “The Origins of Patriarchy.” Lumen Learning, 2017, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/cochise-sociology-os/chapter/the-origins-of-patriarchy/.
Kang, Sok-kyong, Days and Dreams, Kim, Chi-won, A Certain Beginning. California, Seal Press, 1989.
Koo, Se-Woong. “South Korea’s Misogyny.” The New York Times, 13 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/opinion/south-koreas-misogyny.html.
Korean Overseas Information Service. “Women’s Role in Contemporary Korea.” Asia Society: Center for Global Education, https://asiasociety.org/education/womens-role-contemporary-korea.
Kwon, Jake. “South Korea’s young men are fighting against feminism.” CNN, 24 September 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/21/asia/korea-angry-young-men-intl-hnk/index.html.
Kwon, Jake, and Yeung, Jessie. “South Korea’s fertility rate falls to record low.” CNN, 29 August 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/29/asia/south-korea-fertility-intl-hnk-trnd/index.html.
Moon, Seungsook. “Chapter 3: Marginalized in Production and Mobilized to Be Domestic.” Mobilized to Be Domestic.
Oh, Miyoung. “South Korea’s gendered nationhood : a case study of heavyweight weightlifter Jang Mi-ran.” Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive, http://shura.shu.ac.uk/10238/3/Oh_South_Korea%27s_gendered_nationhood.pdf.
Park, Boo Jin. “Patriarchy in Korean Society:Substance and Appearance of Power.” Korea Society, https://www.koreasociety.org/images/pdf/KoreanStudies/Monographs_GeneralReading/GettingtoKnowKorea/GTKK%206%20Boo%20Jin%20Park%20Patriarchy%20In%20Korean%20Society.pdf.
Quick, Miriam. “South Korea’s population paradox.” BBC: Generation Project, 15 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191010-south-koreas-population-paradox.
The Economist. “South Korean women are fighting to be heard.” The Economist Special Report, 8 April 2020, https://www.economist.com/special-report/2020/04/08/south-korean-women-are-fighting-to-be-heard.
Yi, Beh Li. “No sex, no babies: South Korea’s emerging feminists reject marriage.” Reuters, 20 January 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-women-rights-idUSKBN1ZJ02Z.
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