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Korea’s ‘Incel President’ Is Far From Alone

South Korea’s new leader, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, used his campaign to draw in young men with repeated rebukes of feminism. It’s the endpoint of a Korean misogynist movement that reflects the same conflicts unfolding in America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia

South Korea’s coterie of extremely online incels, men’s rights activists and anti-feminist influencers are cheering after their biggest win in years. 

On Wednesday, March 9th, conservative politician Yoon Suk-yeol won the South Korean presidential race, notching a paper-thin win by 0.73 percentage points — a difference of just under 250,000 votes in a nation of some 44 million registered voters. It came after months of campaigning that fixated on the Culture War® between young men and women, with Yoon swinging for the fences with rhetoric that reframed men as victims of progressive thought and painted Korea’s feminist movement as profoundly flawed. 

Yoon, 61, has claimed that “structural discrimination based on gender” simply doesn’t exist in South Korea, despite the nation ranking near the bottom of the developed world when it comes to the gender gap in pay and representation. He has rallied for the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender and Family, claiming it unfairly treats Korean men like “potential sex criminals” (despite South Korean women having some of the most alarming disparities in homicide rate and overall victimization). Yoon has also blamed the nation’s low birth rate on feminism, going so far as to say it stymies healthy relationships with men. 

In short, his campaign directly targeted a subset of Korean society known as idaenam, slang for “twentysomething man.” And the exit polls demonstrate how successful this playbook was: 58 percent of female voters in their 20s voted for Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, who has advocated for quotas for female representation in politics and generally is more open to feminism. Meanwhile, some 59 percent of male voters in their 20s voted for Yoon.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given previous polling that has shown that 70 percent of young Korean men reject any kind of affirmative action policies for women. They’re also less accepting of LGBTQ identities, which some experts say is a reflection of how reactionary young men are returning to older patriarchal ideas as a salve to the problems they see in modern society. 

This is quite the turn from the mid-2010s, when it appeared that America’s #MeToo movement and broader consciousness about intersectional feminism was inspiring similar discourse about how Korean women are under attack. One of the biggest uprisings came after the brutal 2016 murder of a young woman by a stranger who admitted he did it because he hated women for making him feel unseen and humiliated. The tragedy sparked protests in multiple cities, and since then, Korean feminist advocates have continued to agitate, shedding light on household sexism, “semen terrorism” and the pervasive targeting of women with hidden cameras and blackmail

More fringe elements of Korean feminism have also grown on forums like Megalia and the vaguely alt-right Womad, where women freely denigrate small-dick energy and flip the hateful slang of anti-feminist men into their own bizarre web of memes and in-jokes. In predictable fashion, men are pointing to this as evidence that feminism is about misandry and nothing more, adding to their own tale of supposed marginalizaton in a society still dominated and largely run by men. 

Naturally, pro-Yoon men are now debating the weight of this victory on their preferred forums — namely, DCInside and its more extreme counterpart, Ilbe. The rhetoric includes conspiracies that suggest Yoon won a landslide victory, lazy GIF insults about feminists and, more generally, celebration of a new era of Korean gender politics. “Fact: If you don’t believe in this election fraud, you’re a Democratic Party spy,” writes one person on a DCInside post. “And if you really want to capture the feminists, you have to grasp and pull out the roots.” 

“If you don’t want to be harassed by radical feminists and want to stop feminism, raise your voice and go out to the protest sites,” another recent post proclaims. 

To be clear, there are signs that the narrative about how Korea supports an “incel president” are overstating the facts. Yoon eked out a slim victory after months of tanking polls, and the Korean culture writer/analyst “T.K.” (of Ask a Korean) observes that the race may have hinged more on real estate taxation and upper-class anxiety more than the culture war over gender equality. There’s also the fact that Sim Sang-jung of the center-left Justice Party, a self-described feminist and the only open supporter of LGBTQ rights in the race, also won 800,000 votes, potentially serving as a third-party wedge for more liberal voters. 

But perception can be more powerful than statistical truths, and it’s obvious that Korea’s landscape of incels, anti-feminist activists and misogynist trolls are empowered by what they see as an affirmation of their arguments. It’s a mindset stoked by mainstream political figures: Yoon’s wife, for one, mocked victims of sexual assault while on the campaign trail. Elsewhere, the young leader of the of People’s Power Party, Lee Jun-seok, has been described as a “young Donald Trump” for his volatile viewpoints and penchant for blaming feminism as a harmful movement build on myths. Conservative presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo was also caught admitting in a published memoir that he, at age 18, had procured a stimulant drug for animals in order to help his friend drug and date rape a woman (he downplayed the incident by asking, “What South Korean man doesn’t have a story like that?”). 

As we saw with Trump, there is potentially much to be gained by Yoon, a political novice, leveraging the culture war as a distraction from corruption, grifts and political missteps. Anti-feminist rhetoric is the perfect populist cover for his targeting of opposition voices, and it’s likely that he will continue to wield the power of mass misogyny as a tool to stabilize his popularity in what remains a deeply patriarchal society. This is a landscape in which the mere accusation of being a “radical” feminist can derail a career and make one a target for waves of digital and physical harassment. (Consider the popularity of sites like Check Femi, a platform that purports to identify celebrities and influencers who have feminist leanings. One recent target is BTS leader RM, who read a book considered a feminist work.) 

But it’s also critical to see that there is nothing truly unique about South Korea’s social struggle to understand and accept feminism in good faith. Nearly every liberal democracy around the world, whether it’s the U.S. or European nations or India or other parts of East Asia, are being affected by anti-feminist movements and lone-wolf violence that aim to silence women. It’s not a coincidence that these nations are also, in various ways, fracturing under the weight of historical patriarchy, the pressures of late capitalism and the isolation of modern life. You cannot divorce the rise of South Korean male misogyny from phenomena like “shibal byeong,” or “fuck-it disorder,” in which young Koreans gleefully blow their paychecks on material goods in an existential rejection of the economy. Nor can you ignore how meaningful discourse about gender relations and equity are inflamed by extreme venues online, which then warp real-world interactions toward a spectrum of trolling and murderous behavior by men. 

Study after study demonstrates that women are disproportionate targets of this violence, regardless of where they live. It’s why Korea’s election of anti-feminist thought into the highest seat in the country is symptomatic of how men around the world are framing their victimization. That framing fails to prioritize systemic factors, such as unemployment and skyrocketing housing costs, in favor of a far simpler boogeyman — and that boogeyman has grown as the loudest men stoke anxiety in their peers, claiming that an ultra-patriarchal society can save us all. 

“There is a strong idea of normative masculinity in Korea, intertwined with a militarized masculinity from mandatory service and, by extension, this idea that you’re a warrior for the economy as well. You’re expected to be a good father. You’re definitely not queer, because that subverts too much,” Jo Elfving-Hwang, associate professor and director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, told me last year. “So in a sense, it’s easy to understand why young Korean men are so aggrieved about gender roles. It’s like the expectations haven’t changed, but the world has. It’s not made any easier by the constant repetition of these aggressive tropes in Korean TV dramas and movies: Casual misogyny and violence against women, domineering men, the need to be a hero.”

Yoon’s election seems to be an affirmation of some of those tropes, but it remains unclear how his time as president, and any potential missteps, will shift the tide in Korea’s battle for harmony between genders during a time of economic instability and the dearth of upward mobility. Young people are struggling with the need to fight for something that can explicitly better their lives — and for young aggrieved men, in Korea and around the world, the call to shut down feminism is perhaps the clearest draw of all.