In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.
Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.
The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.
This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.
By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.
Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.
This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.
Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.
Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.
These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.
In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”
Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.
This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.
Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.