South Korean women rise up: An interview with Nayoung Kim

When I read Andrea Dworkin’s work for the first time, my life changed forever. Her writing taught me the politics of sexual abuse. It made clear to me that sexual abuse is the heart of male dominance. I learned that I was not alone in my experience, that others like me had fought back, and that the system of male dominance must be destroyed in order for every woman to live with dignity.
In every sector of South Korean society, women are assigned second-class citizenship and deprived of equal opportunity. South Korea has the highest gender pay gap among OECD countries, with women earning 63 per cent of what men earn in 2017. Only 56.2 per cent of women are employed. Women are grossly underrepresented in positions of power, holding only 17 per cent of seats in the National Assembly and 10.5 per cent of management positions in the private sector.
In South Korea, women are treated as sex objects, reproductive vessels, servants, and prey for men. Men subject women to sexual harassment and rape everywhere — at home, at school, at work, at the market, in religious communities, in political parties, in progressive activist circles, and out on the street. Prostitution flourishes.
Abortion is illegal and the government regards women as reproductive vessels who exist to supply the nation with a new generation of subjects. Concerned by the country’s low birth rate, in 2016 the Ministry of the Interior decided to create and publish a national “birth map” showing the number of women aged between 15 and 45 and where they were located. Government officials thought pointing men towards women and girls of childbearing age would address the low birth rate in the country.
At home, women are expected to act as servants for male family members. In their family of origin, daughters receive less material and emotional support than sons. In many families, girls are assigned the task of cooking for and cleaning up after their brothers, regardless of birth order or ability. Countless women from working class families have had to give up their own education and begin work at an early age to pay for their brothers’ education.
Women are under immense pressure to marry men. However, in a culture prioritizing the patriarchal family over the individual, heterosexual marriage functions more as a system that keeps women in indentured servitude to her husband and his family than as a partnership between two equal individuals. Many South Korean men use the mail order bride industry to lure young women from poorer countries into abusive situations — this is called “multicultural marriage.” Considering this, resisting marriage is an important struggle for feminists in South Korea.
In previous years, feminism had mostly been shared among a select group of activist and academic women. Nowadays, feminism is finally sweeping every corner of the nation and reaching ordinary women.
I think misogyny is becoming more aggressive and lethal across the globe — not just in South Korea. As more women are developing a feminist consciousness and working together to effect change, male dominance is striking back. Men are using violence to maintain their power and control over women.
Culturally, victim-blaming and a negative view of divorce are stronger in South Korea than in many parts of the world. Divorced women face severe discrimination, stigma, and lack of opportunities, and the situation is worse for divorced women with children. There are also very few spaces where women can find good feminist support. Hopefully the new women’s movement will change this reality.
I would say that Korean men have not responded well to feminism at all. I am tempted to say that the status quo itself is a gigantic Men’s Rights Movement.

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