The New Political Cry in South Korea? - Transcript

Opening Jingle [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Myunghee Lee [00:00:09]

Welcome to the new Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. I'm Myunghee Lee, postdoctoral fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Today, we’ve invite Professor Judy Han for her expertise on South Korea's feminism and gender issues. Thank you for joining us today.

Judy Han [00:00:33]

Thank you for inviting me. I'm really glad to be here.

Myunghee Lee [00:00:36]

So South Korea's recent men's rights movement is gaining the global attention these days. New York Times even published an article entitled with “A New Political Cry in South Korea: Out with the Men Haters” on January 1st, 2022, and covers this phenomenon in detail. The president elected of South Korea promised to abolish the Minister of Gender Equality and Family during his campaign to seek young male voters votes. This is an interesting, yet very worrisome trend. So we want to talk about this recent trend. But before that, we really need to understand South Korea's feminist history because that will provide some context about this new trend. Professor Han, could you tell us about the historical diversity of feminism in South Korea? Please give us some historical background.

Judy Han

Sure. First of all, thank you for being interested in the topic of feminism. Even though there's a lot of interest in Korean history and Korean studies, sometimes Korea observers overlook the importance of gender and sexuality and feminist politics. In thinking about this question, rather than start with the newest developments and the most particular slice of gender politics today. I want to try to take a step back and think about the broader historical context, because I think that's where we can understand where these controversies and discussions are coming from. So, for instance, generally the way people talk about feminist movements in the US or in European countries, I think there's a very clear tendency to to describe different waves of feminism by women's movements. There's a first wave, there's a second wave and maybe there's a third wave, etc. And these different waves are supposed to build upon the previous wave. If the first wave was focused on women's right to the vote, the electoral vote, maybe the second wave is about securing basic civil rights, human rights, and then subsequent waves are about more particular kinds of gender-based rights or gay and lesbian rights or something like that. And I think in the Korean context, there are certainly those patterns of different waves in Korean history. But I think in Korea, first of all, the context of the national liberation from Japan, the kind of a postcolonial experience after World War Two, the colonial experience, of course, and then sort of the transition after the war, the postwar period, followed by a long period of military dictatorship and authoritarian government under which most social movements struggled not for civil rights or gender based feminist politics, but for national democracy. And I think during that period, there were a lot of organizing by feminists, by women activists who didn't necessarily prioritize gender. The national context of democratization is a really important context to keep in mind, and that continues to the late eighties. If we think of 1987 as a really key moment in Korean history, the kind of peak of student activism and whatnot, so say the late eighties and then starting in the 1990s, we see the emergence of different kinds of social movements that we hadn't seen before. So this is, I think, the start of a lot of human rights organizing, a lot of gay lesbian rights organizing also started to take place and shape in in the nineties.

Myunghee Lee [00:04:10]

Thank you for summarizing the feminist history of South Korea. So there is a clear difference between pre-democratization-feminist-movement and post-democratization-feminist-movement that you described; before democratization, before 1987, most feminist movements were organized under the umbrella of national democracy. But could you let us know a little bit more about during pre-democratization time, whether or not there was some other feminist movement that was not in the umbrella of the national democracy movement?

Judy Han [00:04:47]

So if we back up before the nineties part. So under the umbrella of pro-democracy movement, also under the umbrella of anti-authoritarian democratization movements, we still see organizations like the Korean the Women's Hotline forming in 1983. So this is in the middle of dictatorship and authoritarian regime that women are organizing groups to fight against sexual violence. This is like a rape hotline right?My Sister's Place”, Durebang forms in 1986. Again, this is still in the middle of the democracy movement. But My Sister's Place is an organization that supported women who worked in militarized prostitution in US military bases. So this is both anti militarism. It's also anti-imperialism. It's also anti-violence because this is also about advocating for women who work in prostitution all the time. So this is 1986. So if we think of just tracing the history of anti-violence work, you kind of forget that they're actually organizing under these extremely authoritarian and oppressive contexts. But if you only focus on groups calling for democracy, then I think you kind of forget about some of these beginnings of these women's organizations. And I think the other really key parts, so you know, both the Korean women's hotline and groups like Durebang are about organizing against violence against women.

Myunghee Lee [00:06:15]

So even under the dictatorship, there were some anti-violence feminist movement that is not under the umbrella of pro-democracy organizations. Then what happened in the nineties? What happened after democratization in those anti violence feminist movement?

Judy Han

1990 is the year that the Korean Council for the women drafted for military sexual slavery by Japan, so-called comfort women. That's when that group formed. That's also 1990. And 1991 is when the first survivor, Kim Hak-sun comes forward and speaks publicly about her experience, 1991. And she's talking about experiences from pre 1945. So for me, the biggest mystery is what did she do? And what about the survivors of, for instance, the comfort woman system? What kind of lives did they live between 1945 and 1991 when the first survivor speaks out? That's when they're in their thirties and forties and fifties. There are things like these huge missing decades when the survivors are not recognized as these grandmothers who are talking about their experiences as so-called comfort women. What kind of work are they doing to support themselves? What kind of social stigma? What kind of public discourse exist during that time when that kind of public discussion and disclosure wasn't happening? Of course, people knew to some extent that horrible things happened to young girls who were taken away, who were sent away, who were lured away to serve as so-called comfort women. But for me, those missing decades before the emergence of the comfort women figure as a kind of a grandmother figure before that happens in the early 1990s, those missing years point for me also to the labor movements, because those are the women who then during those decades worked in low wage work, underpaid, extremely exploited in agricultural sector, in industrial sector, they're the ones who would have likely toiled in service work, in factory work, and perhaps even sex work again, for instance, the US military. So these kinds of continuities help us connect the dots between different movements and different historical periods. So if we think about the pro-democracy movements, anti-violence movements, support for comfort women, the trade union, the labor organizing by women workers, we're already talking about a very diverse set of actors who don't necessarily come together as a feminist movement. And that starts happening more explicitly in the middle of the 1990s and onward. So the kind of backlash that I think we're experiencing today is backlash that's directed at any number of these things and sort of a backlash against a multifaceted history of women organizing, of feminist political activism, and not just something that just happened in 2018.

Myunghee Lee [00:09:31]

So you mentioned briefly about 2018 MeToo movement in South Korea. Actually, many women were actively participating in the MeToo movement in 2018. As you mention, many people argue that the recent backlash is against to that particular movement. But as you describe, it's not necessarily the backlash against that particular movement. It's the backlash against the historical movement in South Korea. So you mentioned a lot of different anti-violence organizing before democratization. Many people were actually focusing more on the democracy movement, rather than focusing on these minor sort of anti-violence sexual violence movement under the authoritarian period.

Judy Han [00:10:18]

And I think there's a reason for that. I think a lot of people didn't pay attention to those movements during or, you know, sort of subsumed under the democracy movements, because, first of all, they weren't seen as important because what was considered to be most important was the project of democracy or the project of national economic development. So any sort of subset issues on progressive rape and violence against women, these things were lesser priority. But the conversations around, especially gender violence, there's a really long history that goes way back before the so-called MeToo movement, which is what most people are familiar with. The recent conversations about the declaration of solidarity for women who were victims of violence - that didn't start in the US and somehow get exported to Korea. If you think about in 1991, when the first survivor of Comfort Women system comes forward and declares herself a victim and other women start coming forward. That's a MeToo movement, is it?

Myunghee Lee [00:11:19]

Yeah. Yeah, it is. So can you explain a little bit about the recent trend of feminist activism and how that can connect to the past movements?

Judy Han

Sure. So there are a couple of different aspects of the recent feminist politics that I can talk about, and one is for sure the 2018 emergence of the MeToo movement, the public conversation taking place, especially from the US context. So of course that spills over into social media and there's a lot more attention being paid to sexual violence and women who especially experienced violence at the workplace or at schools or in various places of employment that include the government and public government sector, too. Right. But probably the most pivotal point in the Korean context is in 2018, in January, when a prosecutor named Soji Han comes forward and exposes her experiences of sexual harassment by the more senior ranking prosecutors in the office. So she becomes essentially kind of a whistleblower in a larger sense, because it wasn't just about a particular crime in a particular office, but just how incredibly pervasive sexual harassment and sexism and discrimination just was. Ironically, she was as a prosecutor, she would have been in a position to prosecute the perpetrators as a prosecutor if she was in an office that would have prosecuted perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual violence. She herself found herself in a position where she was experiencing this and unable to change the circumstances of her workplace until she spoke out in 2018. And this was, of course, followed by the courageous actions of Kim Ji Un in 2018 as well, who was a political aide to a very popular and a rising star in the more progressive Democratic Party, Anni Jong, who was then the governor of a province. And she exposed them on a national television and accused him of sexual assault, which of course, subsequently led to his immediate resignation and later criminal conviction and imprisonment. There's a multitude of other cases of women coming forward to reveal their experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment in different fields, too, like the literary field, in theater and social activism. And they haven't been able to hold accountable perpetrators of violence who called power in a certain hierarchy. So I think this is the kind of discussion around me, too. In Korea. It's also really important to note that these weren't just women who experienced sexual violence in general. A lot of times these MeeToo cases in Korea were ??. These were people who experienced violence in a particular context where someone in a position of power could demand their silence and use the system to keep the women in silence. And so that particular MeToo, in terms of feminist politics in Korea, isn't just about anti-violence or anti-sexual violence. I think it was also again about questioning the power structures. It's anti hierarchy and anti authority. So I think it has a lot of interesting repercussions that that will hopefully continue. But having said all this, it's still bleak in terms of just how pervasive these experiences are. By no means does the 2018 series of MeToo declarations, there's no way that this means the end of sexual violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault. In some ways, it's just a start among many starts.

Myunghee Lee [00:15:03]

So during the MeToo movement, many women are coming out. And speaking out loud and sharing their personal experiences. Some of them are sharing those experiences on national television, as you said. And doing that requires some courage because there are a lot of costs involved in speaking out - in revealing their personal experiences. What do you think really emboldened and empowering women to come out and speak out during that movement?

Judy Han [00:15:38]

Not being one of the women who spoke out? I can only imagine how much courage it took to speak out in such a public way. I imagine there was a lot of hesitation. I imagine there was a lot of fear. But I do think that there is power in solidarity of experience. I think there was power in collective action. And I think part of what led to this is another sort of a more immediate context to the 2018 series of MeToo declarations is that, starting in 2015, 2016, 2017, there were unprecedented feminist protests taking place, especially in Seoul, especially after in 2016, the brutal murder of a woman in a public place near a subway station in the middle of the city. Sure, in the middle of the night, I suppose, or late at night. But the brutality that I think that crime reminded folks the kind of violence and brutality and danger and risk that women, especially young women, face every day, that sparked an incredible series of feminists taking to the streets and demanding not only safety but change. That's 2016. So, of course, the series of these protests, I would imagine, only helped to embolden folks who were thinking about coming forward because they knew that there would be a community that they could rely on.

Myunghee Lee [00:17:04]

So in the authoritarian period, we see some alliance between the democracy movement activists and feminist activists that you briefly mentioned in the beginning of this talk. However, in this recent MeToo movement, what we see is that these powerful progressive politicians were actually accused of being harassing women sexually. So I guess my question is that do you see some division between these feminist activists and the former democracy activists? So I'm asking this question because, as you know, South Korean progressive politicians are actually based on democracy movements in the authoritarian period.

Judy Han

Yeah. And I think those divisions are not just about two groups because they're not two groups. There are many groups within those groups, some of whom are allied with each other, and some of them have never been. So within the so-called progressive social movement sphere, there has also been lots of MeToo cases, there has been lots of sexual violence and sexual assault. And in the early 2000s, there was an organization called the 100 member committee, xxx, that named abusers within the social movement organizations. And that was super controversial then, too. If you think about Kim Ji-un facing the wrath of so-called progressives as demanding her to be silent because how dare she bring down the career of a man who will do great things for the country? I mean, if you can imagine that multiplied by 100, that kind of discussion in social movements have taken place in the early 2000s as well. And these were people who were leaders in trade union movement and student activism who were just as guilty of perpetuating violence against women. So this so-called division or the idea that progressive groups or progressive social movements would be somehow not a site of gender discrimination or sexual violence, that's never been the case. That's only become clearer, I think, with cases like Kim Ji-un. But it does make the work of feminist activists more difficult because there I think it's not just about fighting or opposing conservative, explicitly patriarchal or anti-feminist groups. It's also about trying to imagine change and demand change in a context that's perhaps more familiar among people who you would have counted on as friends. And I think the former mayor of Seoul Park Won-Soon. And that's why that case has also been an extremely difficult case for many folks. He committed suicide right before he was about to be publicly accused of sexual harassment. I've met him once and in a different setting, and he's always been a friend to social movements, to feminists as a human rights lawyer. And people who remember him that way refused to believe that he could do such a thing. And that refusal has been also incredibly hurtful to feminists who still want to hold him accountable. And so I think working through these tensions and these difficult these are difficult conversations. We want to be having this discussion. And we wouldn't be doing our work as scholars if it wasn't difficult.

Myunghee Lee [00:20:19]

Yeah, I agree that this is a really extremely hard conversation to have. So let's discuss the recent backlash from the men's rights activists. They argue that feminists are having misandry ideas and men's rights must be protected. Their rights are not really well protected by the society in South Korea. There is no systemic sexism in South Korea. They are making these kinds of arguments. So what's your take on this?

Judy Han

I think in some ways these are also new trends and not new trends. I think men have always been in power and men who have a vested interest in upholding patriarchy and benefiting from systems of discrimination and sexism, of course, would have a lot to lose if feminist demands were met. So in some ways, that kind of backlash is to be expected. If feminists are demanding the end of patriarchal oppression, for instance, if they are demanding equal wages in the workplace, if they're demanding the end of sexual violence and gender discrimination in the workplace and in the family, for instance, of course that's going to actually press upon both men and women to change their behaviors the way they think of their place in the world. Well, yeah, especially for young women in South Korea who have a lot to lose, have put a lot on the table in calling for change. Some young men in South Korea, instead of seeing their fate as tied to the women. So instead of seeing themselves as also benefiting from the kind of feminist change that the women are calling for, are taking it as something that they would have to give up. And with increasing neoliberal precarity, the unemployment rates, it's also difficult for anyone to make a living and to survive in South Korea. And for some folks, it's easy to then put the blame on the feminists. For this kind of backlash, the kind of economic precarity and the general insecurity that's widespread certainly feeds into it. And also another really huge aspect of this is the online communities and social media that also has the unprecedented potential to amplify these messages and to exacerbate it into enslavement even further. I don't necessarily think it’s the cause the online stuff and the social media, I don't think ever really caused things or create things. But in terms of stoking the flame and creating opportunities for things to grow and amplify, yes, we've certainly seen that happen. It's really vicious. Some of these anti-feminist backlash in some ways. Of course, it's worrisome. But I also try to keep it in perspective that those voices of refusal to change of the backlash that will always happen. But the challenge, of course, is to address new forms of violence, such as the online violence and new forms of heightened misogyny. How do we address that and how do we fight against yet another series of concerns? That becomes absolutely something that we need to take seriously.

Myunghee Lee [00:23:23]

Yeah. Then what's your forecast in the South Korean society? Do you see optimism there so that the society's changing toward a much more gender equal society.

Judy Han [00:23:35]

If anything, I feel optimistic because I know a lot of people are working on it and I'm one of them. I feel like as long as I'm involved in a process of collective mobilization and voices for social change and transformation, as long as I'm part of that, I feel optimistic. And because in some ways I have to be, but also because when I look back to the last 10, 20 years, things have changed. There's still a lot to do, but things do change. And as history has shown, South Korea is certainly capable of change.

Myunghee Lee [00:24:07]

Yeah, I think you raise a really important point here. So even though we see a lot of backlash from the anti-feminist groups these days, but we can also see more open discussions on feminist issues and gender equality issues in the newspaper articles and in the public forums and everywhere. So we can see changes in South Korea as well.

Judy Han [00:24:33]

I'm always learning from new movements and new voices, and I can just insert a little bit of conversation around LGBT, the gay and lesbian activism in Korea too, and transgender activism. This is stuff that self-identified feminists didn't want to have anything to do with 20 years ago. The so-called leaders of women's movements 20 years ago outright said lesbians don't belong in feminist movements. That kind of tension has existed in my lifetime and perhaps continues to, to some extent. But a lot has changed. We have a lot more acceptance. A lot more embrace and a lot more participation of all kinds of feminists in LGBT activism. And gay lesbian activists being involved not just in some sort of a narrowly defined gay agenda, but also being involved in trade union movement and other human rights and political struggles throughout South Korea. So the kind of diversification of feminist movements that I've talked about, I think the kind of diversity of LGBT activism that's taking place in Korea, that's also something that's really exciting to see.

Myunghee Lee [00:25:42]

Yes. Yes, I agree with you. So my final question is about the recent presidential election campaign in South Korea. So the 2022 South Korean presidential election was the election where the gender issue has become one of the most salient issues. Major candidates were making promises with regard to gender issues. What's your take on that?

Judy Han

So maybe this is the end of optimism. Yeah, because suddenly I feel a chill down my spine with this conversation. Every time I talk to friends from Korea, the first question I ask and the last question I ask, that's what what's going to happen and why is this happening? And is there anything you can do? It's bleak. Of course, there are more than two parties in Korea, but the two major parties dominate the discussion and they're both just as bad when it comes to gender equality for all kinds of reasons and perhaps for different reasons. So I think whatever hope folks had with the change of administration last time around, especially with the context of a candlelight protests leading to the removal and imprisonment of the former president and the installation of a new, more liberal administration, xx, if people had all kinds of hopes about change for feminist change and otherwise. I think those moments of hope have certainly been crushed, diminished dramatically over the last four years. And I think it is that sense of dread towards national politics that have also been emboldened, the more conservative voices and right wing voters, partly because of the extent to which I think liberal voters have been disappointed with the Liberal government. So I think we won't see much change. To be honest, I don't think there's a huge difference when it comes to gender equality or LGBT equality among those two presidential candidates. I'm not mentioning, for instance, the Justice Party with the progressive leader, Sim Sang-jung who has consistently spoken in a manner that I think is friendly and positive towards feminism and LGBT politics. But if we're talking about the top contenders for the next presidency, I don't think there's a huge chance that we'll see progress of any sort in regards to gender equality. Having said that, I think part of what's happening is that perhaps the focus isn't narrowly on national politics anymore. I mean, not that that ever was the only way that people focused on politics, but maybe this kind of celebrity politics, maybe this kind of focus on presidential politics, as if that is going to be the determinant of all political change or otherwise. Maybe this is, again, a reminder for political observers and social activists to think about different scales of change and different scales of politics. So there's more attention to not just the national or the provincial or even the mayoral elections, but the micro scales, the family, the church, the schools, the local neighborhoods. Perhaps change is more likely to imagine at a different scale. In that regard. I think the kind of activism and political participation that we've seen. I don't think all of that will just go away or be wasted.

Myunghee Lee [00:29:05]

Thank you. Thank you so much for this very illuminating discussion on South Korea's gender issue and feminist politics. I think today's takeaway is to remain optimistic and fight for the progress. Thank you for joining us today, Professor Han. I am Myunghee Lee and thank you for listening to the Naughty Asia Podcast, NIAS Korea series.

Judy Han [00:29:31]

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast