Attacks on women grow as increasing numbers refuse to take on the traditional roles of mother and wife, citing the overbearing conditions imposed by the traditional patriarchal system of South Korea.
At the end of March, the South Korean government revealed its strategy to boost fertility rates. The Asian country has the lowest fertility rate in the world with 0.79 births per woman in 2022. This number is far below the 2.1 replacement needed to sustain a country’s population.
As in previous years, the Korean government plans to invest up to $200Bn into support programs that can be “perceived directly by South Koreans” according to President Yoon Suk Yeol. Even though the money is intended to support aspects such as better education and childcare subsidies, the policy overlooks the root cause of the problem, which is not related to fertility.
A survey conducted in 2022 by Sisa Times revealed that young Korean men and women are reluctant to have children, 68% and 54%, respectively. This is mainly due to societal burdens that affect all young people similarly, such as expensive housing, exhausting working hours and expensive child-rearing. Yet, women have an added determining factor: the patriarchal system that maintains tight standards of what having a family implies.
The 4B feminist movement especially has made headlines many time with its motto: no dating (biyeonae), no marriage (bihon), no sex (bisekseu), and no child-rearing (bichulsan). And even though not all Korean women stand for all four, bihon has become the philosophy of many.
To provide more context, Korean society revolves substantially around specific standards for men and women on how to behave, dress and look. For women, these pressures are accentuated not only in their external life–workplace and universities–where they must look impeccable but also in their personal life.
When deciding to start a family, women have to do it all: take care of the kids, do the household chores, provide emotional support and find the best schools. But also, given the suffocating situation, they must contribute economically. South Korea has one of the widest gender gaps of OECD countries in terms of hours spent on household chores. Women spend 14.1% of their day in domestic work, while men spend only 4.4%. The same applies to childcare, where women dedicate 8,194 hours a year, compared to 818 hours of their male partners.
Romy, a 24-year-old South Korean woman currently living in Seoul, explains how applying bihon to their lives is not “hating on the other sex,” nor not wanting to have kids, but rather the avoidance in advance of having to build the perfect family. Like her, a substantial part of the female population is trying to find a point between potentially wanting to have a family and, at the same time, refusing to comply with imposed conditions.
This pressure comes primarily from older generations, especially the husband’s side. A clear example is the Chuseok festivities when only women are required to cook a copious amount of food for their husband’s ancestors, while the latter’s job is “just to sit comfortably”. According to Romy, numerous young men still hold those beliefs, the product of their parents and grandparents’ teachings.
This pressure on women and a skeptical view of feminism crystallized in the last elections with the rise of Yoon Suk-yeol to power. The current President, more than aware of the country’s demographic problem, turned the discourse against women and condemned feminism as the main problem. During his campaigns, he insisted on erasing the Ministry of Equality and the term gender equality, both things already in process.
The term “feminism” is fairly new to South Korean society. Those who openly show a minimum commitment to the cause get publicly canceled. “Feminism is portrayed as a very bad thing” affirmed Romy. And now even more so, following the president apportioning blame for the country’s demographic problem on women.
The explanation of South Korea’s trend lays then in two factors. A pattern observed in Western countries, accompanied by a patriarchal system that stifles women. While the first can be tackled with economic measures, the latter is born from a deeper structural problem.
In an interview given to the New York Times, Ms. Chung, a member of the former government and in charge of reversing the birthrate trend, was and is still committed to a feminist approach. “The focus should be on oriented actions and a feminist approach to dismantling the barriers of being a mother or a wife”.