Back in late October, out of the blue, the phrase seolgeojiron 설거지론 ("dishwashing theory") went viral on the Korean cyberspace.
It describes a supposedly common situation in the country: Korean women who spend their youth dating and having wanton sex use respectable men to launder their sordid past and enjoy comfortable lives. Their target is inexperienced men, white-collar men, men who earn decent salaries and are desperate to start families.
Having ensnared them, the women allegedly proceed to treat their husbands like living ATMs and domestic servants while withholding affection and sex.
Here, "dishwashing" refers to two things: that women are apparently laundering their history through respectable marriages (like dirty plates getting cleaned), and that men trapped in these partnerships perform a great deal of domestic chores including dishwashing.
Named "Pong-Pong ladies" (Pong Pong is the brand of a popular dishwashing liquid), such Korean wives are said to be many.
The whole thing sounds humorous and even absurd, but it became a topic of national conversation seemingly overnight. Heated arguments for and against the theory ensued on discussion boards. Established media outlets were caught surprised, rushing to print their takes on the 'phenomenon'.
While not everyone bought into the idea that women use marriage to exploit men, the popularity of the label spoke to the current national mood. Feminism has become a taboo word. In the run up to the presidential election in March, major party figures are distancing themselves from women's issues.
It's a striking reversal for women's rights, but the dishwashing theory represents something greater than just a culture of misogyny. Growing inequality has transformed dating and marriage into an asset that only the more privileged can afford. Young men shut out of the system channel their rage at the opposite sex, but there are also hints of class warfare in the making.
Certainly, the trope of evil Korean women itself has been around masculinist online forums for years and reinforced through various labels. A popular term in the mid-aughts was doenjangnyeo 된장녀 (soybean-paste girl)—an attack on young women seen as wasteful for carrying around Starbuck's coffee in takeout paper cups as a status symbol.
In the 2010s doenjangnyeo went out of fashion, replaced by kimchinyeo 김치녀 (kimchi girls). It suggested that women, by virtue of being Korean, suffered from excessive greed and saw men only as tools for social mobility and respectability.
The pervasive climate of misogyny gave rise in 2015 to the radical feminist site Megalia, which used similarly insulting words to mock Korean men in a strategy dubbed "mirroring" (doing onto men as men do onto women).
Gender inequality in Korean society was still widely recognized and considered a problem to tackle. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, about tribulations of an average woman in her thirties, was published in 2016 to commercial success and wide acclaim, especially among women, who related to the story of suffering under patriarchal expectations.
Current president Moon Jae-in came to power in May 2017 promising to be a "feminist president". It coincided with the first anniversary of a young woman's death near Gangnam subway station in Seoul, caused by a man who claimed to hate all women. The beginning of 2018 saw the #MeToo movement take off in Korea. That summer a series of protests took place to denounce the crime known as molka—men recording women without permission.
The government made gestures at taking women's concerns more seriously, but that translated into plunging support for the ruling Minjoo Party among young men, who complain that their lives are no easier than those of young women. These men claim reverse discrimination and have been leading the latest attacks on any talk that women might be victims.
That kind of view was once marginal and expressed anonymously on Ilbe, the notorious online community known for rightwing politics, xenophobia and misogyny. Over the course of Moon's presidency it's become common to hear such sentiments on YouTube, where pundits peddle extreme opinions, often uncorroborated, in order to attract traffic and make money from Google advertising.
One of its representative figures is Bae In-kyu, who previously went by his online persona Wangja—"Prince". Before setting up his current YouTube channel, New Men's Solidarity, Bae's claim to fame was insulting female victims of digital sex crime as "whores" and casting doubt on the 1980 pro-democracy movement in the city of Gwangju, which the then-military dictatorship ruthlessly crushed. Now he sees feminists as his main enemies and routinely holds demonstrations to speak about the evils of feminism, going so far as to harass women's rights rallies.
Against this backdrop the term Pong-Pong ladies has emerged as another way for highlighting the alleged true nature of Korean women.
It's continuation of the long line of attack on women as freeloaders, but it embodies a more complex meaning than doenjangnyeo or kimchinyeo. In depicting married women as manipulative creatures, it reduces their husbands to idiots who have fallen into a trap of lifelong bondage (the label given to them by the dishwashing theory is the Pong-Pong troupe).
It's a sign of men pitting themselves against other men on the latest front of the culture war.
Some self-identified married men have empathized with this depressing portrayal of Korean marriage, proudly declaring that they are among these miserable souls in online confessions jokingly known as seoltu 설투 ([I am a] dishwasher, too), and in the process mocking women's #MeToo movement.
But at the same time, it's riled enough married men who dismiss the dishwashing theory as "collective hysteria" of "dotaenam 도태남" (leftover men) who aren't able to marry at all.
In fact, the married men vs. unmarried men dynamic in emergence is also a story of the haves and the have-nots in Korea, where how much a man makes "has a tremendous impact on the likelihood of being married," according to a 2016 paper by Kim Yu-seon, a researcher with the Korea Labor and Society Institute.
The following graphs are based on Kim's data and included in a 2019 report by the National Assembly Research Service, a parliamentary organ. It shows that while income plays a role in marital status regardless of gender, the effect on men (in red) is much greater than on women (in blue).
Of course, one way to read it is by remembering that older men probably make more money, and are more likely to be married given their age. But that isn't all.
Another explanation comes from multiple surveys, including this 2018 study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs: 92.7 percent of unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 44 said a potential partner's finance was important for deciding on marriage.
Among unmarried men in the same age group, that answer was given by 53 percent.
Seen through that lens, the dishwashing theory does contain a grain of truth: Korean women in general consider male partners' earnings to be important, and they are strongly likely to settle for men who provide financial stability.
In a country where young men are angry over the record-high jobless rate and expensive housing, it means marriage and even dating are also difficult in absence of money: two separate surveys of unmarried people from 2015 and 2020 say that earnings also determine how much dating experience one has on average.
No wonder men without means lash out at married women and their husbands.
Don't get me wrong: Korea's anti-feminist tendencies are real today, and "Pong-Pong lady" is a dig at women. But that makes it too easy to see only the gendered dimension of the dishwashing theory and stop there. An editor at conservative daily The JoongAng writes about being asked by his twenty-year-old son for his opinion on the matter. He asserts, "It's problematic to say all married women are gold-diggers and all married men are Pong-Pong. Just like misandrous arguments that all men are potential perpetrators [of sex crime] are ludicrous.
"My son, don't get pulled into senseless talks and just focus on dating."
That's good advice if his son can afford it.