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The Weird Traditionalism of Korean Feminists


Ziho Park is a professor of economics at Taiwan National University. He grew up in Korea and received his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago.

Ziho joins me to talk about the strange world of Korean feminism, and the backlash to it. The last time this came to my attention was when Korean feminists recently got a “sex festival” shut down. Ziho also talks about another controversy, where a pop star wore a quite modest “sexy nurse” costume and this became a major political issue. Judge for yourself its level of offensiveness.

Unlike in many other countries, the backlash to feminism among young men in Korea pops out clearly from the data. In fact, Korea might have the most massive political gender gap between young people anywhere in the developed world. Along with record low birth rates, all of this looks extremely unhealthy from my perspective. Yet Korean gender controversies don’t exactly map on to our own, so I thought I would have a native come on the show to explain to me what exactly is going on.

Antifeminists in the US tend to be religious, or at least traditionalists of some kind. They believe in different responsibilities and roles for men and women. In Korea, according to Ziho, young men simply demand legal equality, and things like abortion and gay marriage aren’t really issues.

Another difference is that Korean feminists are extremely prudish. There’s of course a sex negative wing of feminism in the West, but censorship appears to be a top priority in Korea in a way that it isn’t here.

While I agree with Ziho that Korean feminism sounds horrifying, I also find much to dislike about the backlash to it. In the West, one of the main motivations behind antifeminism is that many of us want a society where men and women have different roles and responsibilities. In Korea, the men seem to rebel against the cultural expectation that they should be breadwinners, and there are even some who think it’s unfair that they are the ones being drafted. No antifeminist in the West would demand equality in war fighting! This leads me to ask Ziho whether those of us who hate feminists in the West should actually cheer for them in Korea. Listen to hear his response.

Liberalism as a political project is fine, and one I wholeheartedly support. But a liberalism that puts disproportionate focus on what women do to men strikes me as at least as culturally unhealthy as every other form of identity politics. If young Korean conservatives were consistent liberals and applied their worldview to a wide range of issues that would be one thing, but this does not seem to be what is going on here. There needs to be a positive vision of male-female relations at the heart of any antifeminist movement, and this is especially true in a country that has gone this far down the path of giving up on reproduction.

Ziho tells me how much he thinks the US is to blame for exporting these ideas to the rest of the world. We also discuss K-Pop and feminism, the degree to which a Christian right exists in Korea, whether the gender war intersects with the geopolitical climate, and much more. This was a fascinating and far-reaching conversation into a completely different culture that has in a sense been mind-colonized by America but nonetheless maintains many of its unique attributes.

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