Abolish or rename? The South Korean “feminist” ministry in the crosshairs

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Seoul (South Korea) (AFP) – South Korea’s anti-feminist president-elect has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality. But getting rid of it will be difficult, experts say, and the new administration is already backtracking on its promise.

Since its inception in 2001, the department has driven social progress for South Korean women, such as allowing single mothers to register their children in their name.

Along the way, he has also become a flashpoint in South Korea’s increasingly bitter debates over sexism and gender, with critics such as new President Yoon Suk-yeol saying he it is an outdated backwater of “radical feminism”.

The ministry’s supporters, however, point to a track record of social welfare policies that benefit a wide range of society – from teenage runaways to the children of North Korean defectors.

“My ex just moved away one day and never came back,” single mother Jin Mi-ae said, adding that her ex-husband refused to contribute financially to their child’s education.

Non-payment of child support was only criminalized in South Korea last year. Many eligible parents – mostly women – still do not receive it, but thanks to the ministry’s efforts, mechanisms are now in place to help them.

Jin filed a complaint with the Child Support Agency – set up by the ministry in 2015 – and said its help was crucial in her quest to get help from her ex-husband.

Yoon said he would not renege on his promise to abolish, but last week his transition team said they would keep the ministry for now.

Removing the ministry would require legislation to reorganize the government – a tricky issue as Yoon does not have a majority.

“The likely clash in the National Assembly could tarnish the image of the new administration,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, told AFP.

With local elections looming in June, he added, Yoon’s People Power Party is unlikely to want to spend political capital on a deadly legislative fight and has put the issue “on hold”.

“Symbolic Target”

In recent years, South Korea’s #MeToo generation has mobilized on a host of issues, from legalizing abortion to demanding prosecutions for “revenge porn.”

It sparked an online backlash against so-called “radical feminism”, with young South Korean men lamenting their own plight – primarily compulsory military service, from which women are exempt.

South Korea’s anti-feminist president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality SWIMMING POOL JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/File

Yoon appealed to disgruntled male voters, calling himself an anti-feminist and pledging to abolish the ministry.

It became a “highly symbolic target” as the conservative candidate courted young men who felt the government was “unfairly privileging women’s interests”, Sharon Yoon, professor of Korean studies at the Institute, told AFP. University of Notre Dame.

Yoon claimed that South Korean women do not suffer from “systemic gender discrimination” – despite ample evidence to the contrary on the gender wage gap and women’s participation in the labor market.

He won the election in March – but by the narrowest margin on record, after young women rallied against him.

Even so, activists say his victory is a blow.

“It’s devastating to have an elected president who actively spreads prejudice and hatred,” Yujin, a 26-year-old voter and activist, told AFP.

– ‘We are the fire’ –

With a budget of about 1.41 trillion won ($1 billion) – compared to 54.61 trillion won for defense spending – the ministry is the least funded of all government departments.

Even so, he has introduced a slew of programs that supporters say help the most vulnerable, from stipends to tackle “periodic poverty” to projects that help victims of domestic violence.

South Korean activist Kim Do-kyung says vital work of Ministry of Gender Equality goes unrecognized
South Korean activist Kim Do-kyung says vital work of Ministry of Gender Equality goes unrecognized Jung Yeon-jeAFP

His most notable achievement was his role in abolishing South Korea’s “hoju” registry, the patriarchal family registry system.

But this vital work is not recognized, activist Kim Do-kyung told AFP. Like housework, “it’s a lot of real, important work, but nobody really sees it as work,” she said.

The ministry declined AFP’s request for comment.

Yoon’s battle cry against him appears to have galvanized women – the left-leaning Democratic Party said it had recruited thousands of new female members, and other activists announced forays into politics.

“We are ready to be the leaders of this country,” activist Haein Shim told AFP.

“Yoon’s administration will do everything they can to burn us to keep our mouths shut, but we’re not burning because we’re the fire.”

Many pundits now expect Yoon to “rename” rather than abolish the ministry, pointing to how his victory has refocused global attention on sexism in the country.

“South Korea does not exist in a vacuum,” Linda Hasunuma, a political scientist at Temple University, told AFP.

“The world is watching how he treats his wives and daughters.”

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