"We want to live! We want to live!" chanted dozens of protesters outside South Korea’s opposition People Power (PP) Party headquarters.
It was Dec. 4, just three months before the presidential election, and the protest was led by the New Men’s Solidarity, a men’s rights organization notorious for highly repulsive, misogynistic comments against victims of cyber sex crime, a feminist lawmaker as well as feminist activists.
They were demanding the resignation of noted criminology professor Lee Soo-jung, who had been appointed co-chairperson of PP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign five days before.
Their reason: Lee was a feminist.
With more than 470,000 Youtube subscribers, the New Men’s Solidarity is at the forefront of misogyny and antifeminism in South Korea. It cries for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, calls the legacy of decades of feminist activism into question, and portrays men as innocent victims of discrimination and false accusations of sexual violence by "man-hating" feminists.
Ten minutes after the chanting began, Yoon’s chief of staff as well as chairs of the campaign’s committee on women’s issues and legal team came out to meet with the protest leaders and conferred with them for half an hour behind closed doors.
"I apologize on behalf of the People Power Party," said Yoo Sang-beom, then-head of the campaign’s legal team and currently a member of the presidential transition team (his boss Yoon won the election on Mar. 9). "Please know that we will incorporate your voice if we win power."
Lee Soo-jung resigned her post on Jan. 4 when Yoon's campaign underwent restructuring.
The conservative PP Party is chaired by 37-year-old Lee Jun-seok, who built his reputation as the antifeminist crusader among young South Korean men through several years of persistently opposing feminism.
He rose to national prominence as the new media advisor in the party’s Seoul mayoral election campaign; the conservative media hailed him for astutely mobilizing twenty-something men discontented with feminism to support the party. The PP clinched victory in two key by-elections last year—for mayoral seats of Seoul and Busan—partly on those young male voters’ backing. What followed was Lee’s own election as South Korea’s first major party chairperson in his thirties.
Since then, however, Lee has kept a relatively low profile on gender issues. (Lately he has been preoccupied with criticizing disability rights activists.) But many are following in his footsteps, with much wilder thoughts. These young male antifeminists are much more brazen, misogynistic, and strikingly patriarchal.
Certainly the provocateurs like the New Men’s Solidarity, active on social media, grab attention with their claims about being victims of a feminist regime that discriminates against men. They despise successful young women, such as progressive lawmaker Jang Hye-young of the Justice Party, and viciously troll critics of gender-based crime, like a celebrity singer who openly spoke out against dating violence.
But other young, perhaps more dangerous antifeminists are working behind the scene and insinuating themselves into realpolitik by using the PP as a vehicle. They see anything that disrupts the patriarchy as plots to pervert the 'natural', 'traditional' social order at the heart of the Korean nation. They speak of the need for "protection of the family" and criticize not only feminism, but also homosexuality and transgender persons.
At its center is Lee Myung-jun, chairman of the Special Committee on Equality of the Two Sexes in the youth wing of Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential campaign. In a 2019 Facebook post, the Korea Sex Harmony Alliance (KSHA), an antifeminist organization which Lee founded and leads, stated:
"Modern women can think only that pregnancy is a misfortune, discrimination and subjugation. They can think only that abortion is a blessing, liberation and a right, and therefore a true victory for women. Women are urged to look and act like men, to enter a competitive society and fight and win. And this is being portrayed as what a real woman is.
"But a society that considers pregnancy a misfortune and describes a real woman as acting like a man, competing and winning can only create an unstable and psychologically deficient future generation."
The KSHA’s comment on men in the same post is equally disturbing:
"To be erect everyday and able to spurt semen, to compete with ambition and adventurousness and to triumph, is to be close to real masculinity. But today’s men are made to take shame in their sexual impulse and feel guilty at being erect when they see a woman."
At the end of the post, feminism is blamed for the disintegration of these 'real' masculinity and femininity. Once allied with rightwing Christian groups, Lee has spoken against non-marriage and claimed that "a man and woman forming a family is human’s most secure identity." He laments the disappearance of conventional sex roles and "the great narratives of fathers and mothers."
In a party whose own president-elect said only last summer that "feminism is said to be politically exploited and blocking healthy dating between men and women", Lee has found a perfect home. He is also something of a bridge between the party and provocateur-antifeminists like the New Men’s Solidarity.
When a KSHA member criticized the New Men’s Solidarity in January, Lee apologized to the latter and expelled the person who made the critical comment. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Lee also praised the New Men’s Solidarity as a "place that exposed every little problem of the sexual fascist faction [feminists] and created the momentum for countless young people to come together" and expressed "sincere support for their future endeavors."
There are other young conservative politicians who are sympathetic to Lee’s kind of antifeminism. Choi In-ho, who worked alongside Lee and spoke at a New Men’s Solidarity rally, is now running for a seat in a local assembly in Seoul. Yeon Tae-oung, who led a movement to abolish the female students’ council at his university and is a member of an association of antifeminist right-wing Christian groups, recently became an aide to Choe Jae-hyeong, a renowned PP legislator.
Jang Ye-chan, chairperson of Yoon campaign’s youth wing and now part of the presidential transition team, is known to have brought Lee Myung-jun and Choi In-ho into Yoon’s campaign. Jang is also a close aide to Yoon.
Positions occupied by young politicians in establishment parties are mostly sinecures, widely handed out during elections. Yet there is evidence antifeminists are exercising real influence on the country’s conservative discourse and even agenda.
Back in December, Lee Myung-jun and Choi In-ho, his deputy, met with Yoon Suk-yeoul. After the meeting, Yoon told the media, "It feels like being struck in the head by a hammer" and "I gained a new perspective. I listened about how serious the gender conflict is, and what solutions I should look for."
Lee recounted that Yoon expressed the "understanding that the left are brainwashing children with feminism as their weapon" and even noted "feminism can become totalitarianism. Such imposition of equality on individuals can lead to and spread totalitarianism, culminating in socialism and communism."
That same month, Lee Myung-jun’s committee publicly denounced an attempt to recruit a Christian former lawmaker Cho Bae-sook into Yoon’s campaign, because she supported making lack of consent a legal criterion for rape. Currently, South Korea’s penal code requires the use or threat of physical violence that makes resistance evidently difficult as a prerequisite to rape and has been criticized for its failure to account for rapes that are not based on physical violence.
Lee argues that the legal requirement for consent in sex is "anti-woman" because "a woman’s love can be devalued as being less than proof of explicit consent". Two months later on Feb. 9, Cho met with Lee and the committee, and apparently told him that she no longer supported the provision about consent.
Separately, investigative reporters have alleged the New Men’s Solidarity’s founder Bae In-kyu ran a Discord chatroom where he designated online news articles for his followers to "purify" and "occupy"—meaning to up- or down-vote articles about Yoon Suk-yeoul so that favorable opinions about him would be more visible.
When the ruling Minjoo Party filed a criminal complaint against the group and PP staff for manipulating public opinion, the PP’s chief spokesperson responded by accusing the Minjoo Party of attacking a "civil society organization" and "defaming an external organization" and its "normal online activities."
Some analysts and older politicians speculated that the antifeminist position was only an electoral strategy that will be abandoned once the election is over. Yoon’s first interview as president-elect suggests otherwise.
"I never exploited the gender division," Yoon declared. Yet, he added that it is better to respond to individual cases of unfairness than to pursue “collective equality”—meaning he sees no point in addressing structural gender inequality in South Korea. He also vowed to "more safely and strongly protect women," echoing the rhetoric repeatedly employed by conservative antifeminists that women are passive beings.
All eyes are on whether Yoon actually proceeds with abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family as he promised during the campaign period. Another under scrutiny is PP chairman Lee Jun-seok, who first set the party on this antifeminist path, and needs to keep on selling the rhetoric despite his temporary silence on gender issues.
Young men fascinated by his antifeminism were already rapidly changing the People Power Party’s voting member demographic in 2021, but Lee’s position is far from secure: he knows he must recruit more men in their twenties and thirties in order to expand his support base within the party.
Lee has repeatedly prompted his followers to become party members, including on the day after the Mar. 9 election.
All this is emboldening and empowering the younger generation of antifeminists like Lee Myung-jun who are now entering mainstream politics.
"Sexual fascism is not an issue or an incident, but today’s trend," Lee Myung-jun said the day after Yoon’s victory, using his favorite phrase for describing feminism. "That is why [antifeminism] must not be a one-time event, but build a foundation for a new civilization."
Cover: Lee Myung-jun (right) with Yoon Suk-yeol at a campaign rally in a picture dated Feb. 22 (source: Lee's Facebook page)