Why neither of S. Korea’s rising political stars could hold onto their party

Posted on : 2022-08-28 10:41 KST Modified on : 2022-08-28 10:41 KST
When it comes to politics rooted in gender-based conflict, there are significant limits in building a cohesive bloc with the potential to expand
Lee Jun-seok (left), the former leader of the People Power Party, speaks at a press briefing on his first year as party leader on June 12, 2022. Park Ji-hyun (right), the interim co-chair of the Democratic Party, speaks at a meeting of the party’s interim leadership on April 8 at the National Assembly. (pool photos)
Lee Jun-seok (left), the former leader of the People Power Party, speaks at a press briefing on his first year as party leader on June 12, 2022. Park Ji-hyun (right), the interim co-chair of the Democratic Party, speaks at a meeting of the party’s interim leadership on April 8 at the National Assembly. (pool photos)

With the presidential and local elections now in the past, two of the marquee names in the People Power Party (PPP) and Democratic Party have found themselves forced to the sidelines, with both former PPP leader Lee Jun-seok and former interim leader of the Democratic Party Park Ji-hyun facing a loss of influence.

The structural factor behind their fading stars is the reality that it is impossible to turn 20-something Koreans — men or women — into a meaningful political bloc.

In order to establish a support base with a particular group of voters, three things are necessary.

The first is the potential for expansion: You need to create shared interests and identity with different groups of voters. The second is cohesiveness, and the ability to send a unified message on a wide-ranging issue.

The final prerequisite is a high level of loyalty toward a particular party or political figure. When it comes to politics rooted in gender-based conflicts, these three conditions are difficult to meet.

20-something men: Parallels with East Germany

The notion of politics targeting men in their 20s — a group referred to in Korea by the term “idaenam” — is not exclusive to Korea. Numerous far-right parties that have emerged in Europe since 2010 have foregrounded anti-feminist messaging.

An example of this is the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD blames “gender ideology” for causing social disorder and the breakdown of the traditional family.

In Spain, the far-right Vox party put up 237 Instagram posts during two general election campaigns in 2019 — 35 of them (14.8%) with content attacking feminism.

The support base for the AfD consists of men from the region that used to be East Germany. They are extremely disgruntled with their relatively poor economic condition and “second-class citizen” status.

The extreme gender imbalance has only worsened as many younger women have moved away from the region. In 2015, the gender ratio for the 20–44 age group for the former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt stood at 117.9 men for every 100 women.

Petra Koepping, a Bundesrat member from the Social Democratic Party, told the New York Times that one of the men she encountered while researching far right politics had sent her a postcard reading, “[I]f you get me a wife I will stop marching with Pegida,” referring to a movement opposing immigrants from Islamic countries.

The situation that Korean men in their 20s face is similar to that of the former East Germany. A look at gender ratios by year of birth showed that while there were 104.7 males born for every 100 females as recently as 1984, that number had risen to 111.4 males by 1989 and 116.2 by 1994.

Between 2000 and 2005, the average gender ratio was 108.1 male children born for every 100 female children. With changes to the economic structure and greater educational opportunities for women, younger men are finding relatively fewer opportunities for quality employment.

But they are also rejecting the traditional patriarchal attitudes about masculinity. More precisely, they are unwilling to shoulder “duties” because they do not want to live the way their fathers’ generation did.

In a 2019 report titled “Changing Masculinity and Gender Discrimination,” Korean Women’s Development Institute research fellow Ma Kyoung-hee wrote that while 16.3% of men in their 40s and 25.0% of men in their 30s said they did not support the idea that the “male is responsible for the family’s livelihood,” that percentage rose to 41.3% for men in their 20s.

A 2020 National Research Council for Economics, Humanities and Social Sciences (NRC) report titled “Diagnosis of Gender Conflicts from a Youth Perspective and Policy Recommendations for an Inclusive State” showed young people responding that they felt more intense social pressure than previous generations in areas including “demands for ‘strong masculinity,’” “pressure to provide a living,” and “criticism and disparagement of men.”

Similarities between 20-something men and women

At the core of “idaenam” politics is an outpouring of anger toward a society that imposes outdated “obligations.”

The bristling over military service and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is rooted in the perception that men are unfairly discriminated against.

In other words, it is a long way from any sort of pragmatic, value-oriented attitude. It’s also lacking in terms of cohesiveness.

Meanwhile, it has less potential to resonate with other voting blocs. This is because its energies are focused on eliminating systems and budgets that other people need. From a conservative perspective, the segment becomes something of a white elephant.

Young Korean women tend to have stronger gender consciousness than previous generations, and they are also sensitive about abusive treatment directed at women. For example, Park Ji-hyun’s main claim to fame before becoming chairperson of the Democratic Party emergency committee was her role in tracing the organized cyber sex crimes perpetrated in the “Nth Room” on Telegram.

For the NRC report mentioned above, women aged 19–34 and 35–59 were asked how worried they were about being victimized by various crimes. In the case of “illegal filming,” 60.4% of younger women responded that they were worried — 1.8 times higher than the 33.5% rate among older women. In the case of “homicide, assault, and rape,” the ratio was 1.76, with 53.4% of younger women saying they felt worried, compared with 30.3% of older women.

A 2002 study titled “A Generation Gap in Gender, or Gender Gap in Generation?” by Incheon National University professor Park Sun-kyoung found that women born since 1980 expressed opposition to traditional gender roles and patriarchal culture, and that the trend was even more pronounced among women born in the 1990s.

But in terms of social and economic areas such as state involvement or expansion of social services, no difference was observed between women in their 20s and 30s and women in other age groups — or men.

Various studies have shown that for young people of high social status whose parents have many assets, both men and women are opposed to higher taxes and show a strong tendency to attribute economic status to individual ability.

A Hankook Research study conducted in July 2021 found the proportion of women in their 20s who supported feminism increased with income and education level. Among women with an average monthly income below 2 million won, only 22% described themselves as “feminist.” That percentage rose to 27% for monthly incomes of 2 million won to 3.99 million won, 38% for 4 million to 5.99 million won, and 47% for 6 million won or more.

The gender politics-related demands coming from young women are likely to focus on matters of crime and safety. In contrast, there is little chance of gender issues connecting with livelihood concerns related to welfare or taxation. This was a structural factor behind Park’s fate as she found herself stuck in the — easily replaceable — role of a gender-focused one-issue figure.

For younger women, gender politics a matter of crime and safety

The party that stands to lose out the most in a gender-based conflict is the PPP.

An examination of Gallup data on political party support trends showed the average support level for conservative political parties among men in their 20s rose by 4.7 percentage points from 33.5% in the first half of 2013 to 38.2% in the second half of 2021. Conversely, support among women in their 20s plunged by 12.9% percentage points from 23.2% to 10.3% over the same period.

Lee Jun-seok’s loss of status can be attributed to die-hard anti-conservative attitudes among these 20-something Korean women. But it also means that it is difficult to establish political dominance in the party without the support of 20-something men. This is why it seems likely the conservatives will continue pushing the gender politics issue even after Lee’s departure.

By Cho Gwi-dong, author and reporter for Chosun Biz

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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