By Boram Jang, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
Many women in South Korea today will be concerned if the country installs a new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, a self-proclaimed crusader for justice.
During the election campaign, Yoon several anti-feminist statements and promised to abolish the Department of Gender Equality and Family, accused its officials of treating men like “potential sex criminals” and blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rate.
Yoon also claimed that there is no systemic gender discrimination in South Korea, but the statistics tell a different story as South Korea’s gender equality index is on the lower end among developed countries.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, women in South Korea earn on average 31.5% less than men – the highest wage gap of the 38 OECD members. The percentage of women parliamentarians is currently 19%, compared to the OECD average of 32%, while South Korea ranks 123rd out of 156 countries in the world for women’s economic empowerment and opportunities.
Yoon’s misogynist perspectives reflect harmful gender stereotypes and related assumptions that permeate South Korean society. They are based on the underlying belief that women are not full human beings with human dignity and rights. Rather, they are sex objects whose gender role is to perform “sexual services” to satisfy male needs.
In March 2020, South Korea was made public aware of the extent of the problem. A group of journalists revealed the existence of a secret chatroom on messaging app Telegram, where thousands of unauthorized, sexually exploitative videos of women, including minors, were sold for cryptocurrency. A subsequent police investigation revealed that more than 60,000 people used similar locations, collectively known as the Nth Room.
It was a chilling 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 dissemination of intimate content without consent, often accompanied by online threats and sexual harassment of victims. In 2020, the rate of digital sex crimes in South Korea, the vast majority of which are directed against women, was 7.5 times higher than in 2003. Related to this, rape and sexual assault rates increased by 1 year over the same period .6 times.
Discrimination against survivors of sexual violence has long deterred women from reporting the crime to the police, but digital sex crimes in particular are deepening the social stigma of female survivors. Abusers can threaten to disclose private information online in order to maintain power and control over their victims, whether to prevent them from leaving a relationship or to report abuse and assert their legal rights in court.
Following the Nth Room case, there was a national outcry and calls for authorities to take action against gender-based violence online. Women’s rights groups and individuals, outraged by the lukewarm response from the government and online platforms to address the issue, began demanding accountability. For South Korean women, the Nth Room case highlighted the ingrained misogyny which has changed shape over time.
In October 2021, one of Nth Room’s chat operators was sentenced to 42 years in prison, while some of his accomplices also faced lengthy prison terms. After the fall, the South Korean National Assembly passed what is known as the Nth Room Prevention Law.
The law criminalizes online platforms if they do not prevent the distribution of digital content with sex offenses on their platforms. Also, they must appoint a person responsible for preventing the dissemination of such content.
The Justice Department also established a digital sex crimes task force. She recently issued a number of recommendations including: establishing an integrated victim support system; Immediate action to remove illegal online content immediately; protections for victims of sex crimes during court proceedings; and guidelines for media coverage of digital sex crimes.
But these measures are not enough as they fail to address the harmful gender stereotypes that still exist in South Korean society.
Destroying these stereotypes will take more than passing new laws and setting up task forces. It means working to change an entire country’s attitude towards women.
This may begin with Yoon publicly acknowledging that the country still faces numerous obstacles to achieving gender equality due to gender and gender discrimination and stereotyping. Then he should also show the political will to address this issue by implementing the recommendations of the Digital Sex Crimes Task Force.
As South Korea’s leader, Yoon must show that he firmly believes that empowering women contributes to the growth and development of a free and just society – something he has not yet done.
Women in South Korea will expect their new president to drastically change course. As a starting point, he must recognize that gender discrimination exists. Only then can real progress be made in addressing the damage they cause.
This article was originally published by Nike Asia