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Courtesy Instagram / @sukyeol.yoon

WTF is going on with South Korea’s new ‘anti-feminist’ president?

The right-wing Yoon Suk-Yeol – who won the country’s presidential election yesterday – has been criticised for his harsh views on women, workers’ rights, and poor people

Yoon Suk-Yeol, the 61-year-old leader of the right-wing People Power Party, has just been elected president of South Korea. In his previous job as a prosecutor, Yoon helped to imprison two former presidents and the head of Samsung on corruption charges: during this presidential campaign he has successfully capitalised on this experience, along with the South Korean population’s growing dissatisfaction with the current ruling party, its failure to tackle skyrocketing house prices and a series of corruption scandals involving its allies.

Recently, South Korea has been going through a turbulent era: its housing crisis has been even more dramatic than Britain’s, and it has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, with the population falling in 2021 for the first time ever. Young people feel as though there is a lack of job opportunities, and anti-immigrant sentiments are spreading. But however legitimate people’s dissatisfaction with the previous government, Yoon is a deeply controversial figure, known for his anti-feminist rhetoric, who many South Koreans have likened to Donald Trump. Below we break down what his victory could entail, both for South Koreans and the rest of the world.

What does this mean for women in South Korea?

Feminists in South Korea have made steady progress when it comes to women’s rights in recent years, but this has incurred a backlash, largely driven by the young men who voted for Yoon in disproportionate numbers. The majority of women in their twenties, on the other hand, voted for Yoon’s rival, Democracy Party leader Lee Jae-myung, who lost by a margin of just one per cent. These women rejected Yoon by a resounding margin, which is understandable: he has made a number of anti-feminist remarks, such as arguing that structural gender discrimination does not exist in South Korea and comparing radical feminists to terrorists, and campaigned on a promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family. Whether or not he’ll actually be able to do this, however, is another matter: such a move would require parliamentary approval, and the Democratic Party now controls the National Assembly. Still, the fact that he won off the back of such a pledge, and would seek to abolish a ministry that promotes gender equality, as well as helping victims of sexual violence and single mothers, is bad news. 

According to The International Affairs Review, South Korea has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and the country is notably lenient when it comes to convicting sex crimes. Workplace sexual harassment is still widespread, and online sexual abuse is a growing area of concern. Proactive measures are needed to tackle these problems, but the new president seems determined not to acknowledge their existence at all. For many in South Korea, the concern is that his victory will roll back progress for women in the country.

What does this mean for workers’ rights?

South Korea has one of the highest levels of working hours of any developed economy in the world. South Koreans work on average 340 more hours per year than people in the UK, which is an extra nine working weeks. This culture of over-work has been blamed for a number of social problems, including a decline in productivity, and in recent years the government has made efforts to tackle it: in 2018, the government introduced a law that limited people to working 52 hours a week at most. This measure, despite excluding a number of workers, was met with popular support at the time of its introduction. Despite this, it’s another policy that Yoon criticised during his election campaign. According to Korea Times, Yoon said that “workers should be allowed to work 120 hours a week and then take a good rest”, which is the equivalent to five 24 hour days. He later argued that his words had been taken out of context, and that he was not demanding that everyone should work 120 hours. However, he has undeniably criticised the 52-hour rule as a failed policy, just as he has criticised South Korea’s minimum wage system. Again, whether or not he’ll be able to reverse these policies remains to be seen, but his election doesn’t bode well for South Korean workers. 

Elsewhere, Yoon’s attitudes to working-class South Koreans have occasionally been startling in their callousness. He was recently criticised for saying that poor people should be allowed to eat food that doesn’t meet legal quality standards, as long as it doesn’t kill them.

How does this affect the rest of the world?

The one big difference is likely to be that Yoon plans to make a much harsher stance on North Korea. His predecessor, Moon, favoured a more conciliatory approach, and met with Kim Jong-un several times. However, this did nothing to stop Kim from expanding his nuclear weapons programme, which was another big criticism levelled at the government during this election. 

Yoon is insistent that UN sanctions against North Korea should be enforced until it completely gives up its nuclear programme. This is in line with the US’s stance, but is likely to go down badly in North Korea. He also wants to ramp up joint military drills between South Korea and the US, a course of action which threatens to further antagonise North Korea, which may well respond by doing more nuclear tests of its own. All in all, Yoon’s combative stance risks escalating tensions further, and while South Korea will remain a firm ally of the west, hostility between nuclear powers isn’t good for anyone. Yoon also plans to take a more aggressive stance against China, seeking to build closer ties with Japan in a bid to limit Chinese influence in the region, which is another key area in which he differs from his predecessor.