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South Korea could face a 'long, hard winter' for women's rights under president elect


South Korea's new president-elect, Yoon Seok-youl, will take office in May, after a campaign that observers say was one of the country's ugliest and closest recent elections. Yoon won over his rival, Lee Jae-myung, by less than 1%. It was an election defined by personal attacks between the two frontrunners and blatant attacks on women's rights. To understand more, we spoke to Hawon Jung. She's a Korean journalist who's writing a book on the country's #MeToo movement. And I started by asking her more about President-elect Yoon Seok-youl and his brand of politics.

HAWON JUNG: Mr. Yoon is the candidate and now president-elect from South Korea's main opposition and the right wing party. And he used to be a career prosecutor and a former chief prosecutor of South Korea. And his campaign was heavily centered on anti-feminist rhetoric that the country has never seen before.

SUMMERS: Can you give us an example or two of some of the anti-feminist rhetoric that you heard during this campaign?

HAWON: For one thing, he said that feminism is one of the reasons why South Korea's birthrate is so low. And he also promised to dismantle the country's gender equality ministry that has played a central role in promoting women's rights and protecting the socially vulnerable people. And Mr. Yoon also promised to toughen the punishment for false sexual assault complaints.

SUMMERS: What have you heard from South Korean women about this campaign, about Youn's victory and the statements that he made throughout the course of that campaign?

HAWON: Well, I think the thing is, a lot of women in Seoul, Mr. Yoon's presidential campaign, is that they believe that he kind of adopted a Trump style brand of very divisive identity politics that almost exclusively spoke to young men. And there was this growing sense of disbelief, shock and dread among many of the country's women, that the hard won advances the women have achieved might be rolled back or seriously jeopardized.

SUMMERS: You pointed out that many women fear that Yoon's brand of politics almost exclusively spoke to young men. I want to ask you a bit more about that, because as I understand it, the margin between the candidates was quite slim. But Yoon did quite well with men in their twenties and their thirties. Do you have a sense of why they were so attracted to him? Is it this brand of politics?

HAWON: Well, I think you have to go a few years back and see what has been happening in South Korea in order to figure out why he's enjoyed so much support from all these young men. South Korea has undergone a pretty strong wave of feminist activism for the last few years. The country had arguably the most successful case of #MeToo movement in Asia. Women, they fought together to bring down a lot of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct. And they also successfully campaigned together to decriminalize abortion. But this whole outburst of activity has also drew certain resentment from a lot of the country's young men, that the women have gone too far, and now men are the victims of so-called reverse discrimination in jobs and opportunities. This presidential campaign was, I would say, the culmination of this wave of anti-feminist backlash that has gained steam since last year.

SUMMERS: In your conversations with women and particularly feminists or activists, do you get a sense of what they are expecting under a Yoon presidency?

HAWON: Well, a lot of feminists and young women in the country I talked to said they've been watching this presidential election with this growing sense of shock, disbelief, fear and dread. And one of them even went so far as to say that maybe this is how a lot of American women felt watching the 2016 presidential election. And another one told me that if Mr. Yoon wins the presidential election, then we may have to brace for a very long, hard winter. And that scenario obviously became a reality. And we need to fight back, fight against this tide of anti-feminist backlash that probably will continue for the next five years.

SUMMERS: That is Hawon Jung, a Korean journalist formerly of AFP, who's now writing a book on Korea's #MeToo movement. It's called "Flowers Of Fire." Thank you for being with us.

HAWON: Thank you for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview, Hawon Jung states that Yoon Seok-youl has promised to toughen the punishment "for false sexual assault complaints.” Hawon’s statement was originally mistranscribed as saying "all" instead of "false" and has been corrected.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashish Valentine
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Kathryn Fox