Being a feminist in South Korea often goes hand in hand with constant online and offline harassment from anti-feminist groups. Over the summer this year, members of the feminist group Haeil were targeted with hate speech. It’s proof of a growing backlash against feminism and women’s rights in the country.
‘Look at all of these feminazis! That’s right, run away! At least you’ll get a bit of exercise!’ laughs a man dressed up as the Batman villain the Joker, chasing a group of South Korean female activists and firing at them with a water pistol. The women are afraid; he’s enjoying himself.
Occasionally he glances at the camera: he’s livestreaming the whole episode on social media, where hundreds of people are encouraging him from behind their screens.
The video was filmed on August 22 in the streets of Daejeon, a city in the centre of South Korea. The man is Bae IngGyu, also known as ‘Wangia’, which means ‘prince’ in Korean. He’s a YouTuber and a central figure of the ‘New Men’s Solidarity’ movement, which is waging a war against feminists. The movement claims that feminism threatens men’s rights and encourages misandry (a dislike of men).
Feminism is often confused with misandry
Although there has been progression in women’s rights in the traditionally conservative country over the past few years, a number of groups dedicated to defending ‘men’s rights’ have also popped up. One of these groups is ‘Dang Dang We’, founded in 2018. It says that its aim is to defend men who have been wrongly accused – according to them – of sexual harassment. The ‘Anti-Feminist Organisation’ is another group that regularly protests against the existence of the Gender Ministry, which is in charge of gender equality issues in South Korea. These groups are openly supported by South Korean politicians.
Feminism, often confused with misandry in South Korea, is the arch-nemesis of the country’s ‘masculinist’ groups. The latter ‘fight’ feminism with online taunting, anonymous threats, anti-feminist demonstrations and sometimes bullying or sexual harassment.
The feminist organisation Haeil (which means tsunami in Korean) was founded in June 2021 to fight against the growing trend of anti-feminism. The organisation immediately became a prime target of masculinist groups, in particular Wangia’s group. The group spent the summer harassing members of Haeil online and offline.
On August 22 in Daejeon, Haeil organised a protest (small, because of Covid restrictions) against the politicisation of anti-feminism.
현재 해일팀 대전시위에조차 신남성연대 배인규가 소리지르며 참석자들에게 물총을 쏘는 등 위협을 가하며 따라붙고 있습니다.
해일은 일단 시위참석자분들을 보호하기 위해 시위를 해산하였습니다.
이 말도 안되는 상황을 알리고 고발해주세요. pic.twitter.com/mqD5kfw5ie
— 🌊전국 릴레이 백래시 규탄시위《해일》 (@Teamhaeil) August 22, 2021
In this video, later published by Haeil on Twitter, Wangia is visible, armed with his water gun and surrounded by people filming him live for social media. He can be heard saying, ‘So you got water on you? Are you angry? God, there are so many insects here, there are so many. I’m going to kill the insects, they’re insects, right?’ (The term ‘insect’ is used by some feminists to designate anti-feminists).
‘I heard that there were fu***** feminists here, I’m going to murder them all,’ he shouts in another video, right next to the group of Haeil members.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team got in contact with Kim Ju-hee, the founder of Haeil.
“It’s the first time he’s got so close to us, close enough to hit us if he wanted to. He started chasing us and shouting insults, but what really scared us was that we didn’t know what was in his water pistol – in South Korea, there have been several acid attacks and cases of ‘semen terrorism’ against women [the act of secretly or overtly putting sperm on a woman or her belongings. This Vice article explains more].”
The hardest part is that no one stopped them. Neither the people passing by – who sometimes even cheered them on – nor the police. They were able to continue their live video without any problem. That day, as well as being scared for my friends, I realised that no one would protect us and that we were alone.
This video was translated by Haeil and shows an extract from the YouTube channel of the ‘New Men’s Solidarity’ movement.
This video was filmed during Haeil’s first demonstration on June 30 in Busan, in the south of the country. The anti-feminist YouTuber is wearing a long blonde wig and women’s clothing. From the roof of a van, he mocks feminists just metres away who are calling for an extension of abortion rights. He shouts into the microphone, ‘Waah waah, boohoo, I’m a victim because I’m a woman!’ The woman next to him adds, ‘I went to have a look at the feminists and got scared because they looked like bears’. ‘Perhaps I should buy you a tranquiliser gun,’ Wangia replies.
Wangia has already come dressed like this to feminist gatherings. Haein Shim, a member of Haeil, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that it’s a way of mocking them for their physical appearance.
We all have very short hair, because we want to fight against South Korean beauty standards. And they really hate that. So he comes dressed like that and shouts at us, ‘This is what you should look like; you’re not real women!’
Anti-feminism is hugely popular on social media. For the video in which Wangia is dressed as The Joker, the anti-feminist group earned the equivalent of around 2 million won [€1,460] through donations to their channel on the Korean video platform AfreecaTV. Haeil describes the money they earn this way as ‘Hatred Coin’. ‘Threatening feminists makes money, and they know it,’ one member says.
The New Men’s Solidarity movement’s YouTube channel had almost 366,000 subscribers and each video posted racked up hundreds of thousands of views. But since the episode with Wangia dressed as the Joker, the account was reported to YouTube en masse and YouTube deactivated the channel on September 5.
The New Men’s Solidarity movement may have lost its primary platform, but it continues to be active on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, harassing feminists.
Feminists in South Korea, however, tend to keep a low profile. When they protest outside, they do so masked, like this photo of one of their demonstrations above. They also blur out their faces when posting images on social media.
‘At every protest, we cover up our bodies and our faces’
Hae-in Shim explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team why they are so careful not to reveal their identities, in a country where cyberbullying can have major consequences.
At every protest, we all have to conceal our bodies and our faces, because one of the most common types of cybercrime against feminists is doxxing – gathering all of a woman’s private information, including photos, and publishing it online for everyone to see.
Threats, cyberbullying of feminists and their friends and family, even calling their employers… ‘They do everything they can to stop Koreans openly identifying as a feminist.’
To understand to what extent the word ‘feminist’ can have negative connotations in the country, one can just look to the online hate directed this summer at South Korea’s triple Olympic archery champion, An San, because of her short hair. There were even calls online for her to give back her three gold medals.
In Haeil, the group’s founder Ju-hee, who is also a member of a feminist political party, is the only person who speaks with her face uncovered
In April 2020, in a feminist meeting.
That decision, however, means that she has become the principal target of men’s rights groups. They have published photos of her online, carry banners of her face during rallies, use it as a screensaver on their telephones and create insulting memes and photo montages with it. ‘You don’t want to know what they’re doing with her face at the moment,’ says Hae-in Shim darkly. According to her, even if Ju-hee makes a formal complaint, those who are harassing her online will get away with no more than a slap on the wrist. Even though South Korean law does punish cyberbullying, in reality there are very few convictions because people do it anonymously online. The South Korean police tend not to view online harassment as a serious crime and haven’t had enough training on it. Haeil plans however to take legal action.
The New Men’s Solidarity movement did not respond to our requests for interview. You can however hear Wangia’s opinion on the subject in an interview with Channel News Asia on August 22 (it begins at 00:29:00, just before the video of him dressed as the Joker). Wangia denies ‘terrorising’ women, and explains that his videos aim to show how ridiculous feminist demands are: ‘I promise you that 99% of men agree with me, it’s just that, unlike these radical feminists, they don’t dare say out loud what they’re thinking.’
‘Young men feel intimidated by a society that is becoming more inclusive of feminist ideas’
Anti-feminist groups are still a minority in the country, but it doesn’t change the fact that feminism continues to be perceived negatively in South Korean society. According to the researcher Euisol Jeong, who wrote a thesis on feminism in South Korea at the University of York, the younger generation is particularly divided on the issue.
The younger generation has split into those who support feminism and those who support anti-feminism because (generally) young men wish to reclaim the patriarchal/sexist order and (generally) young women wish to challenge the sexism and misogyny of Korean society.
As young women’s continuous protests against sexism and misogyny have become more socially visible, young men feel intimidated by a social atmosphere that is more inclusive of feminist or less sexist ideas. This helps masculinist groups gain support easily.’
According to a survey in the country, 80 percent of young men in their 20s somewhat or strongly agreed with the sentence ‘Feminism is aiming for female supremacy’ and more than 60 percent didn’t agree that ‘Feminism is aiming for gender equality’.
‘They think that we are a threat to tradition’
Anti-feminism in the country has clear ties to nationalism – which anti-feminists are eager to exploit, says Haeil founder Kim Ju-hee.
‘They think that they are waging a war against us and that we are a threat to tradition. Some of them have even said that we are North Korean spies come to spread dangerous socialist ideas, and that fighting against us is fighting for South Korea.’
The current progressive president, Moon Jae-in, describes himself as a ‘feminist leader’, and his presidential term has been marked by a growing #MeToo movement in South Korea. But the 2022 presidential election is in sight, and many nationalist politicians are taking advantage of anti-feminist sentiment in the country to earn votes. One major opposition figure is the conservative politician Ha Tae-keung, who has said he would get rid of the Gender Ministry, which is working towards gender equality in the country. He says the institution is ‘obsolete’.