Finding Feminism in South Korea: A Foreigner’s Introduction

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I was one of the first attendees to arrive at the lecture and decided to take a seat right up front, near the two interpreters who’d be translating this talk. This turned out to be a great idea - reading their lips helped me to more easily make out what the interpreters were saying as they fastidiously worked to translate Park Ji-A’s lively and fast-paced discourse. I’d heard about this event from a popular women’s Facebook group. Finally, an opportunity to discuss this topic with some like-minded people, be it Koreans or foreigners. Discussions regarding women’s equality were a near-daily occurrence for me back in the States, but if it were possible to have such discussions in Korea, I certainly hadn’t found the right group of people yet. Perhaps this event could give be what I’ve been missing since moving to Seoul. When the lecture came to a close, I got up and turned around to see the room filled with a few Koreans, but a surprising mass of foreigners milling about. Looks like I wasn’t the only non-Korean curious to see how feminism manifests itself in this nation, how it compares to feminism as defined by my home country, and how to …well… meet some of the fellow feminists hiding out amongst Seoul’s endless crowds.

During her talk, Park outlined some major historical milestones that shaped women’s rights in Korea. From Confucianism’s explicit outlining of a patriarchal society, to post-war mobilization, to the newest waves of feminism developing since the 1980’s and 90’s, the general outline of feminism’s development in Korea began to take shape for me. While some of the nuances and finer points of Park’s lecture were lost in translation, I gleaned that Korean feminism appears more institutionalized than American feminism. Large networks like the Korean Association of University Women make feminist thought overtly present in political life by influencing policy and legislation. Older, government-friendly women’s organizations butt heads with newer, more radicalized organizations that oppose the state. While I know there are feminist organizations in the United States that lobby for equality and likely influence government decision making, American feminism as I was introduced to it focuses much more heavily on rethinking the way men and women act and interact in daily life. How do seemingly trivial or innocuous behaviors sustain a larger system that marginalizes women? Because of its focus on collectivizing individuals’ everyday experiences, an American feminist can be largely apolitical and still advocate confidently for feminist ideals. Can the same be said of Korean feminists? Or does defending women’s rights here necessitate a good understanding of what’s going on with the government?

Maybe the feminist movement on this side of the globe was morphing in a completely unique way. I realized I had much more to discover.

And yet, in so many other ways, the root motivators for feminism in my home country were echoed here in an all too familiar way. “Relax, it’s just a joke,” Park recalled her male colleague saying once in an attempt to defend his sexist comment.  Anyone who’s experienced sexual harassment, in the workplace or otherwise, has surely heard that line before. Here, too, women fight against traditional roles that designate them not only as necessarily second to men, but also as their property. Here, too, masculinity is equated, among other things, with the “right” to oppress and marginalize women both explicitly and implicitly. And here, too, patriarchy appears to hurt everyone in one way or another.

Seeing feminism only from an American or western perspective creates a limited view of feminism, one that inhibits true solidarity. Reconciling the differences and similarities of Korean feminism with the feminism I know is the first step in “globalizing” my understanding of the feminist movement. After the lecture, at a nearby restaurant, the other attendees and I shared our impressions of the talk over some chicken and beer. I sat amongst guests from various parts of the globe, all with their own perspectives and understandings of feminism, all hoping to expand their understanding of feminism, just like me. The questions we came up with seemed to arise in a continuous stream. Is there a “right” or “ideal” feminism? How do race, age, sexuality, and similar factors play into women’s rights movements? Is a custom or idea that’s rooted in oppression always going to be oppressive? What’s up with “aegyo”[ref]Aegyo “refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures.” As it is most frequently utilized by women, some consider it to be sexist and/or oppressive. Sun Jung (1 November 2010). Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols. Hong Kong University Press. p. 165.[/ref] culture and is it inherently misogynistic? What can we do about all -or any- of this?

August’s open lecture on feminism introduced me to ideas and people I’m thrilled to have encountered. The ISC’s mission to connect progressive ideologies and movements around the globe is admirable, and that connection is exactly what I experienced both thanks to the lecture and the diverse group of attendees it brought together. I’m so glad I went.