The South Korean Election’s Gender Conflict and the Future of Women Voters
from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

The South Korean Election’s Gender Conflict and the Future of Women Voters

In South Korea, gender equality and the feminism movement have become politicized and polarizing issues, especially among the younger generation, leading up to the March 9 presidential election.
Women attend a protest as a part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea on March 8, 2018.
Women attend a protest as a part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea on March 8, 2018. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

In January, South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Seok-yul pledged in a Facebook post to abolish South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF). The ministry, which in Korean is named the Ministry of Women and Family (Yeoseonggajokbu), largely provides family-based services, education, and social welfare for children. (The MOGEF budget comprises 0.2 percent of the total national budget, and less than 3 percent of its budget targets women’s economic equality promotion.)

Yoon, who represents the opposition People Power Party (PPP), the country’s major conservative party, claimed that the Ministry failed to perform its gender equality function properly and has “treated men as potential criminals.” Yoon tapped into a broader feeling among men and provided validation to anti-feminist groups. Many young men feel disadvantaged by government efforts for gender equality, which they claim provide preferential treatment to women. After his pledge to dissolve the ministry, Candidate Yoon received a boost in his polling figures—jumping over 6 percent from the week prior to take a slight lead over Lee Jae-myung, the candidate from the ruling progressive Democratic Party (DP).

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Candidate Lee, meanwhile, did not defend the institution. Instead, he promoted a plan to reorganize MOGEF as the “Ministry of Equality and Family” (Pyeongdeunggajokbu). In November 2021, he told the Korean National Council of Women, “Just as you should not be discriminated against because you are a woman, it’s also not right to be discriminated against because you are a man.” Lee did stress he would introduce measures to close the gender wage gap (currently the widest among OECD countries), combat discrimination in hiring, and foster broader women’s political participation.

This election has devolved to mudslinging and issue-baiting to capture younger voters—especially young male voters—who have risen as the election’s swing bloc over the past year. Koreans have historically largely voted along ideological and regional lines. For the first time, younger voters have begun to split according to gender. Young Korean men by far prefer the conservative PPP, while young women voters prefer the DP (see figure 1).

South Korean Party Support by Age and Gender Cohorts, January 2022






Men, 18-29





Men, 30s





Women, 18-29





Women, 30s






Source: Gallup Korea (published January 27, 2022)


South Korean Political Parties and Women’s Rights

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Historically, neither progressive nor conservative parties in South Korea claim women voters as their base or place gender-based issues on their platform. This is quite surprising given Korean women’s groups’ historical successes in advancing women’s rights, such as abolishing the patrilineal family registration system that governed citizenship and pushing through anti-discrimination and anti-domestic violence legislation in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But the reason for these past successes stems from their alliances with all political parties to pass individual policy reforms, rather than promoting an ideology of women’s rights per se. As a result, lawmakers from political parties on the left and right have all introduced women’s legislation on an ad hoc basis to cater to specific policy-oriented constituents, rather than picking up a broader women’s issue platform.

During this election’s primaries, a slew of sexual harassment scandals within the ruling DP has marred the Korean progressive establishment. In 2020, the Democratic mayors of Seoul and Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, resigned following sexual harassment allegations. The DP party leader apologized to the public but declined to investigate the matter. Progressive alternatives, such as the Justice Party, have also struggled with sexual harassment. In January 2021, its party leader was dismissed following allegations of sexual harassment.

The spate of scandals has left many women in Korea cynical of the progressive political establishment. Candidate Lee, who has stood outside the DP establishment with populist appeals, only narrowly edged out the “establishment” candidate in the primaries last October. The DP’s sluggish response to sexual harassment scandals has led many progressive Koreans to leave the major party. Some women’s groups have staged protests in front of the two major party headquarters, criticizing both candidates’ “exploitation of misogyny” that cater to young male voters.

On the other hand, Candidate Yoon’s campaign has blamed feminism for low birthrates and spoke out against the #MeToo movement, and the PPP chair has equated feminism with terrorism. A 2018 poll reports 64 percent of Korean women in their 20s support the feminist movement. For many young women concerned with the frightening rate of gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence, Candidate Lee and the DP may just be “the lesser of two evils.”

Politicizing Gender Equality

The World Economic Forum gender gap report ranks South Korea 127th out of 153 countries in terms of economic participation (a notable drop from 96th in 2006). While women in South Korea may enter university education at higher rates than men and receive initial boosts on the job market, most women drop out of the workforce during childrearing years due to workplace policies and social pressures. They then have a hard time reentering the job market, fill fewer management positions, and are passed over for promotions.

Korean young women have increasingly voiced their frustration with the structural and cultural forces that limit workplace advancement and pressure women from lodging discrimination or harassment complaints. After decades of pent-up frustration, a vibrant #MeToo movement surged over the past five years and led to the resignation of several high-profile politicians, business leaders, and entertainers, politicizing the question of gender-based discrimination and inequality. Korean women in their 20s and 30s increasingly eschew unreasonable beauty standards and refuse to get married or have children. (Young women and men both are increasingly giving up dating.) While women’s leadership in large corporations are shockingly low, more and more women are choosing to start their own companies to create more female-friendly work cultures.

A growing group of Koreans see the #MeToo movement and young women’s steps toward cultural change as a witch hunt that frames all men as potential criminals and a form of reverse discrimination. In their view, discrimination and violence against women may have been a problem among the older generations, but they live in an era of gender equality. In a June 2021 poll, 84 percent of Korean men in their 20s and 83 percent in their 30s—more than any other age cohort—reported they had experienced “serious gender-based discrimination.” Anti-feminist activists—who include women as well as men—organize counter-protests to women’s rallies against sexual violence and discrimination. Online communities amplify anti-feminist rhetoric, and right-wing websites such as Ilbethe third most visited website in Korea in 2016serve as tools for young men’s conservativism that paint feminism as radical and misandrist.

As Young Women Go, There Go The Nation?

The politicized gender conflict will manifest in party politics more clearly as younger Koreans soon take up leadership roles in government and civil society. In fact, at 36 years old, conservative PPP Chair Lee Jun-seok became the youngest party leader in Korean history. He gained popularity through expressly anti-feminist views that garnered the support of disaffected young male voters. Chair Lee reportedly advised Candidate Yoon to court the same young male base and warned against appointing women’s rights-friendly figures to his campaign.

While every four years American look for the bellwether state to predict the next president, South Koreans in the future may very well look to Millennial and Gen Z women as the swing voters for national politics. Young women in South Korea largely feel unrepresented by any party: 42 percent of women in their 20s prefer no party at all (Figure 1, above).

This leaves an open space for major and minor progressive politicians to court this cohort. In Gallup Korea’s most recent poll, 11 percent of women in their 20s support the liberal Justice Party. This is the only cohort that supports a minor party above ten percent. If women’s groups, politicians, and party platforms begin to align—as the past few years’ trends have suggested—the future of progressive politics in Korea may very well be female.

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Dr. Darcie Draudt is a postdoctoral fellow at the George Washington Institute of Korean Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs and nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.