SEOUL -- Ahead of the 2017 presidential election in South Korea, Moon Jae-in pledged to "become a feminist president." In the run-up to the 2022 vote, the discourse could not be more different.
The two leading candidates, former Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, and former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl of the opposition People Power Party, have been preoccupied with outlining their campaigns and political mudslinging. But one thing the two men have in common is their apparent distaste for feminism.
In August, Yoon said: "Feminism should be healthy feminism, and not be exploited for elections and staying in power." When asked his opinion on the country's low birthrate, he implied that feminism was a factor, saying that it was "so politically abused that it acts as an emotional barrier to healthy relationships between men and women."
He also pledged to realize "true gender equality," and strengthen punishments for false claims of sexual violence -- which many in "masculinist" online communities believe to be a big problem in South Korea despite research suggesting very few actual cases of false accusations.
In the past few weeks Lee has expressed similar views.
"If Lee Jae-myung can differentiate himself from the Moon Jae-in government's feminism-first policy, he can gain the support [of men in their 20s and 30s]," concluded an anonymous online community post that Lee recommended during a meeting with colleagues on Nov. 8 to discuss the March election.
The following day, he wrote in a Facebook post about women's safety and gender equality, saying, "Just as you should not be discriminated against for being a woman, it's not right to be discriminated against for being a man." On Nov. 10, Lee shared an anonymous letter from another online community arguing that the "madness" of feminism had to be stopped.
Both the leading contenders have vowed to reform the country's gender equality ministry, accusing it of policies that promote reverse discrimination and alleging that it treats men as potential criminals.
This campaign rhetoric has been condemned by dozens of civil society groups. "There is no vote for you in the antiquated politics that are only meant to stir up anti-feminist sentiment," the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center said in a statement. Sim Sang-jung, the presidential candidate of the Justice Party, a small opposition group, called Lee Jae-myung's recent remarks "dangerous," and "shallow populism."
From street protests to the online backlash, the anti-feminist movement in South Korea has gained a steady following in recent years, especially among young men -- and this has not escaped the notice of politicians, including the leading presidential hopefuls.
"The candidates are latching on to anti-feminist rhetoric because many in South Korea perceive that gender equality policies are essentially preferential treatment in favor of women," Min Hee Go, an associate professor of political science and international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told Nikkei Asia. "It is rather convenient for the candidates to associate feminism with preferential treatment and reverse discrimination, without considering its deeper roots and potential ramifications."
A 2019 survey published by South Korean current affairs magazine outlet Sisain found that men in their 20s believed discrimination was more "severe" against men (68.8%) than women (33.6%).
The idea that women benefit from preferential treatment stems from resentment over the draft, which all able-bodied South Korean men are subject to. Many young men believe their service to the country is not properly recognized, said Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University's Graduate School of International Studies.
With their sense of deprivation over access to good jobs and housing, and politicians "going overboard" with policies, including those aimed at boosting fertility, women end up being "scapegoated," he said.
The anti-feminist messaging is especially appealing to young male voters "who have lived their lives in an ultra merit-based environment and have yet to observe discriminatory practices in the labor market," Go at Ehwa Womens University said. "Now that they constitute a swing voting bloc, the candidates are proposing policies to appease their frustration, part of which is the anti-feminist rhetoric."
This resentment was apparent in the April by-elections, which the conservative People Power Party won in a landslide: Nearly 73% of male voters in their 20s supported the party's Oh Se-hoon, now mayor of Seoul. Party leader Lee Jun-seok attributed the Democratic Party's loss to its apparent "fixation on a pro-women agenda," and underestimating young men's willingness to vote.
There are signs, meanwhile, that a growing number of young women are withholding political support from both main candidates. According to a recent survey conducted by Research View, women in their 20s were almost twice as likely (47%) as men in the same age group (25%) to say they do not favor either candidate, or are unsure whom to vote for.
Kim Ju-hee, a founding member of the women's rights group Haeil, told Nikkei Asia that the "frightening trend" of politicians resorting to anti-feminist pledges "demonstrates that anti-feminism is flourishing in South Korea."
She is also worried that the effects of "demonizing feminism," and "purposely excluding" young women, will go beyond the election. "It will reinforce the hopelessness and disappointment among women in their 20s who are advocating for gender equality, which could lead to big social trauma," Kim said.