The Misogynistic Undercurrents of Korean Political Protests

Written by Sydney Nam, a regular contributor. Sydney is a second year War Studies & History students, and her specific interests involve social injustice of ethnic-minorities (particularly in East-Asia) and about the violation of women’s rights in conflict-zones, such as South Sudan.

A week ago, the world galvanized as a collective voice to speak out against the misogyny that has been perpetuated by Donald Trump’s unprecedented victory. Standing and marching amongst the myriad of bright pink posters labelled with clever quips and colorful illustrations about equal rights for women, I could not help but think of the recurring protests back at home in Seoul.

Amidst the most recent protests, sceptics and critics alike have questioned the pragmatism and value behind demonstrations, arguing that they do little to change actual legislation and bring tangible change to the political landscape. However, I would argue otherwise that South Korean President Park’s suspension of powers and subsequent impeachment in the recent months speaks volumes in the power of protests as a medium for reform.

The beginnings of President Park’s impeachment are convoluted and rooted deeply in the systematic corporate and governmental corruption, which have plagued South Korea since the nation’s conception in 1948. The snapshot timeline leading up to President Park’s fall includes the assassination of her mother and father (a former President), her upbringing with an alleged shaman and his daughter, and murky business with some of the largest international corporate names like Samsung and LG.[1] Although somewhat surreal and reminiscent of a soap opera, there remain important lessons to be learned from Korea’s protests against President Park.

To the Korean people’s, President Geun-Hye Park has made a public and international mockery of the democracy. Korea’s history books will remember President Park as the first female president who failed to serve the full five-year tenure. Korea’s political quagmire has reopened social issues, which have long collected dust at the bottom of the national agenda.

Since news of the scandal broke in early November, over 1.5 million people have gathered in Gwanghamun Square in central Seoul every Saturday.[2] Throngs of people organized themselves in rows depending on their official picket signs, settling in front of the huge bronze statue of King Sejong the Great, a leader who once brought stability and reform to the Asian peninsula. With irony in the air the protesters pledged their allegiance to justice, waved their candles and picket signs in unison, and chanted songs about Korean patriotism. Although empirically it is difficult to determine to what extent public protests have played in her impeachment, it is undeniable that these protests were a proponent in creating dialogue amongst people and used as a pressure point in forcing President Park to step down with an already dismal approval rating of 4%.[4]

However, despite the colorful charm of this grand unification of people and the successes they bring with them, there were salient details of President Park’s criticisms, which were not to be missed. The harsh comments consisted of unabashed misogynistic snipes, underpinning the deeply seeded sexism that exists within Korean society. The resentment and disdain reserved for President Park is undoubtedly reasoned, but the gendered insults are not.

Terms such as “bitch” and “princess” have been directed towards President Park alongside pointed comments of her appearance, demeanor, and status as an unmarried woman.[3] To some extent in the Western liberal viewpoint the gendered and derogatory rhetoric lashed out against Park mars the integrity of protests. However, in the conservative and still somewhat Confucian Korea, it highlights a woman’s inability to lead, feeding the notion that women should be limited to homemaking and childbearing. These cultural considerations are vital in understanding and critiquing the nature of the protests.

Unfortunately, even supporters of Geun-Hye Park have played into the sexist rhetoric and systematic inequality. For instance, her lawyer recently defended her right to silence by referring to the sensitive nature of her private life as a woman. Comments like these simply highlight the sexism that seeps into every sector of a country, which overtly sexualizes its female celebrities, belittles unmarried women, and sports the highest level of gender inequality in a developed country.

It seems as though the world is teetering on the precipice of political, social, and economic instability. Nevertheless, the protests across the world prove that there is a large percentage of society who will not sit idly as actions of injustice at the highest level happen. I reject the claim that protests do not work. They provide a glaring spotlight against leaders who do not uphold our values of justice, equality, and democracy. As proponents of these values, we as the people must uphold our bargain by being fair and just in our language towards our oppressors, being critical of the actual problem rather than deviating from the focus by attacking their birth-characteristics, such as race or gender. Calling out the nature of President Park’s marital status, or targeting ten-year-old Barron Trump, only tarnishes our cause.

The protests for gender parity, human rights of immigrants and refugees, and a fair and just system, all around the world illustrate the power people have collectively. The events that have unfolded in South Korea – in part as a result of the protests – are a case study of their relative success. It is up to us to continue rallying for greater causes, while keeping mindful of the importance of being fair and just in the nature in which we protest.

Image taken by Sydney Nam

Bibliography

[1] Campbell, C. (2017). South Korea President Park Geun-hye Has Been Impeached. [online] Time.com. Available at: http://time.com/4596318/south-korea-president-impeachment-park-geun-hye-corruption-choi-soon-sil-protests/.

[2] Lee, K. (2017). Over 2 million expected to join Saturday protests. [online] koreatimes. Available at: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/11/116_218953.html.

[3] Ock, H. (2017). Anger at Park brings out misogyny, sexism. [online] Koreaherald.com. Available at: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20161123000760.

[4] Ock, H. (2017). Anger at Park brings out misogyny, sexism. [online] Koreaherald.com. Available at: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20161123000760.

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