Young men in South Korea feel victimized by feminism
WAS IT IS SIMPLY an innocent sausage? Last month, a poster promoting a camping kit sold by GS25, a chain of stores in South Korea, included an illustration of two fingers reaching out to grab a smoking firecracker. Angry young people complained. They said the detail, which looked like an emoji of a hand making a pinching gesture, was a hidden insult planted by feminists. As everyone knows, the symbol is commonly used to make fun of the size of a man’s penis. One critic was particularly frank. “Why the hell should the sausage be there and who would eat a hot sausage with their fingers?” Said Lee Jun-seok. “We deserve an explanation.”
On June 11, Mr. Lee was elected leader of South Korea’s main opposition party, the People Power Party (PPP). At 36, he is the youngest to lead a South Korean political party. His election marks an effort to rejuvenate the Tory squad ahead of next year’s presidential poll, though Mr Lee himself is not old enough to be eligible for the post. Among her biggest fans are men in their twenties who feel victimized by South Korea’s increasingly vocal feminist movement.
South Korea scores poorly on gender equality measures. The “Glass Ceiling Index” compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, considers it the worst rich country to be a working woman. Many women face discrimination and harassment. Creepers use hidden cameras to take pictures of themselves in public rooms and restrooms. This culture ruins lives, according to a report released on June 16 by Human Rights Watch, an international observer.
Many young men have a different point of view. In a 2019 survey, some 60% of men in their 20s said discrimination against women was not a serious problem. More than two-thirds said injustice towards men was the big issue. They said they felt disadvantaged by South Korea’s marriage culture, labor market, and law enforcement. Compulsory military service, which only applies to men, is a particular grievance. “We have to compete with the women after sacrificing 22 months for the country,” says Jung, a 25-year-old. “We just want compensation for our sacrifice.”
Mr. Lee spoke out against radical feminism. He said the ruling party performed poorly in the April municipal elections because it focused too much on pleasing female voters and “underestimated” young men. He promised to abolish quotas for women in the PPP and wants to restore “fairness” to the political process by using tests to choose candidates for his party. It appeals to many young men, more than three-quarters of whom voted Conservative in Seoul’s recent mayoral election. “Most of my friends feel discriminated against in one way or another and that’s why we support Lee Jun-seok,” Jung said. “This is not about anti-feminism, this is about fair competition.”
Mr. Lee graduated from Harvard and worked for an education startup, but never held public office. He may struggle to find more policies that can unite his young fans with the older, crisper supporters of his party. These include evangelical Christians with a penchant for conspiracy theories that many in the PPP find it embarrassing. His idea of having party members compete for nominations by passing exams in skills such as writing PowerPoint presentations is unlikely to succeed, says Choi Jin-bong of Sungkonghoe University. His ambition to abolish quotas for women and young people will irritate other party leaders, some of whom are young women.
Yet Mr. Lee’s youth and novelty can prove to be powerful assets. the PPP has changed his name twice since he lost power four years ago after a corruption scandal toppled Park Geun-hye, the former president. Until recently, he had shown no desire to renew himself more than that. A conservative landslide in the municipal election suggests voters are degrading for the leftist government of President Moon Jae-in, which has been damaged by its own scandals and delays in covid-19 vaccinations. Mr. Lee’s popularity will help anyone who PPP nominates to run for president next year, at least among some male voters. Women may find it less impressive. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Sausage Festival”