By Boram Jang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.
Many women in South Korea will be feeling anxious today as the country inaugurates a new president Yoon Suk-yeol, a self-styled crusader for justice.
During the election campaign, Yoon made several anti-feminist remarks and pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, accusing its officials of treating men like “potential sex criminals” and blaming the country’s low birthrate on feminism.
Yoon also claimed that systemic gender discrimination does not exist in South Korea, but the statistics tell a different story, with South Korea’s gender equality index languishing near the bottom among developed countries.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women in South Korea earn 31.5% less than men on average — the highest pay gap of the 38 OECD members. The percentage of women parliamentarians currently stands at 19% compared to the OECD average of 32%, while South Korea ranks 123rd out of 156 countries globally in women’s economic participation and opportunity.
Yoon’s misogynistic perspectives reflect harmful gender stereotypes and related assumptions that pervade South Korean society. They are based on an underlying belief that women are not full people with human dignity and rights. Rather, they are sex objects whose gender role is to provide “sexual services” to satisfy men’s needs.
In March 2020, the South Korean public was made acutely aware of the scale of the issue. A group of journalists exposed the existence of a secret chat room on messaging app Telegram where thousands of unconsented, sexually exploitative videos of women, including minors, were being sold using cryptocurrency. An ensuing police investigation revealed that more than 60,000 people used similar sites, collectively known as the Nth Room.
It was a horrifying demonstration of how discrimination and patriarchal patterns that cause gender-based violence in South Korea are reproduced and amplified in the digital world.
A digital sex crime is a form of gender-based violence that typically involves the filming and distribution of intimate content without consent, often accompanied by threats and sexual harassment against victims online. In 2020, the rate of digital sex crimes in South Korea, of which the vast majority is against women, was a massive 7.5 times higher than in 2003. For context, rape and sexual assault rates increased by 1.6 times during the same period.
Discrimination against survivors of sexual violence has long deterred women from reporting the crime to the police, but digital sex crimes especially deepen the social stigma experienced by women survivors. Abusers may threaten the disclosure of private information online to maintain power and control over their victims, whether to prevent them from leaving a relationship or from reporting abuse and pursuing their legal rights in court.
In the wake of the Nth Room case, there was a national outcry and demands for authorities to crack down on online gender-based violence. Women’s rights groups and individuals, outraged at the lukewarm response from the government and online platforms to address the issue, started to call for accountability. For South Korean women, the Nth Room case highlighted the deeply rooted misogyny that has changed its form over time.
In October 2021, one of the Nth Room chat operators was sentenced to 42 years in jail, while some of his accomplices have also faced lengthy prison terms. Following the case, South Korea’s National Assembly passed the so-called Nth Room prevention law.
The law subjects online platforms to criminal punishment if they do not stop the circulation of digital content involving sexual crimes on their platforms. It also requires them to appoint a person in charge of preventing the circulation of such content.
The Ministry of Justice also established a digital sex crime task force. It recently published a set of recommendations that include: the establishment of an integrated victim support system; emergency measures to immediately remove illegal online content; protection measures for victims of sexual crimes during court proceedings; and media reporting guidance on digital sex crimes.
But these measures are not enough, as they do not address the harmful gender stereotypes that still exist in South Korean society.
Eliminating these stereotypes will take more than enacting new laws and setting up task forces. It means working toward changing the mindset of an entire country toward women.
This can start with Yoon acknowledging publicly that the country still faces multiple obstacles in achieving gender equality because of discrimination and stereotyping based on sex and gender. Then he should also show the political will to address this issue by implementing the digital sex crimes task force’s recommendations.
As South Korea’s leader, Yoon must show that he firmly believes the empowerment of women contributes to the growth and development of a free and just society — something he has until now failed to do.
Women in South Korea will be looking to their new president to drastically change course from his previous path. As a starting point, he must acknowledge that gender discrimination exists. Only then can real progress be made in addressing the harm it causes.
This article was originally published by Nikkei Asia