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SEOUL: South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision to use the country’s gender wars as a campaign platform for his successful election earlier this month may have backfired.
Yoon, who won an unprecedented close election on March 9, had pledged to abolish the government’s gender ministry, a pledge that helped engage young male voters sparking a backlash against feminism in South Korea.
Honoring the pledge, however, requires the approval of parliament, which is controlled by Democrats, who currently oppose the idea. Opinion within his own People’s Power Party (PPP), meanwhile, is divided over concerns over the further alienation of women ahead of key local elections in June.
Cho Eun-hee, a newly elected PPP legislator, is among those calling for the mandate of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to be strengthened, via the creation of a new agency if necessary.
“Despite its many positive functions, the ministry has been criticized for fueling gender conflict…but it’s not all or nothing, we must muster the wisdom to find a forward-looking alternative,” said Cho.
The ministry has become the lightning rod for an increasingly acrimonious debate on gender in the country of 52 million people where several inequalities persist – the rate of participation of women in the labor market is below the average of the OECD and it has the worst gender pay gap in the same group.
However, in a tough post-pandemic job market, some young men feel attempts to redress the balance have gone too far. Compulsory military service for young men – not women – is in the spotlight, while measures such as financial subsidies for women living alone have been called “reverse discrimination”.
Yoon, who also pledged to raise salaries for military draftees and scrap gender quotas for public sector jobs after taking office in May, was backed by about 60% of male voters in their 20s.
On the other hand, just 34% of women in their twenties voted for Yoon, defying pre-election polls projecting much higher support among that demographic.
The Democratic Party, seeing the gender issue as a driving force to regroup after the election defeat, named as its new interim leader a 26-year-old feminist who has been a vocal critic of Yoon’s policies.
The ministry’s origins date back to 1988, when an office was established under the Prime Minister to promote the status of women in a male-dominated Confucian society, before being expanded in 2010 to incorporate broader issues gender and family.
While some blame her ‘feminist’ rhetoric for stoking anti-men sentiment, she has also come under fire across the political spectrum in recent years for defending ruling party politicians accused of sexual abuse. . He has also been criticized for helping the incumbent Democratic Party craft policy during the election campaign, instead of remaining neutral.
A Realmeter poll released in January showed about 52% of Koreans favor closing or renovating the ministry.
“The ministry has failed to respond to calls for reform, which has eroded public trust and raised concerns about the deepening gender divide,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University.
“Some fear losing their benefits and much-needed help, and that’s where the president-elect should play his part, to allay their concerns.”
The ministry also works to prevent sexual crimes and domestic violence, protect victims, and support children, single parents, and other families in need.
Many women fear the removal of the ministry would be regressive at a time when more work was needed on gender equality.
“The ministry should disappear one day, but we are not there yet,” said Kim Ji-yun, 22, who voted against Yoon.

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