A shocking murder puts renewed focus on gender politics in South Korea
On 17 May this year a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a 34-year-old man at a unisex toilet near the Gangnam subway station in Seoul. What shocked the public most was that the victim was a total stranger to the assailant.
His sole motivation for the crime seemed to be his professed hatred of women. He told the police that he had been humiliated by female customers at a bar where he worked as a server, and that prompted him to commit the crime.
The murderer was also reported to have been diagnosed as schizophrenic years before, and thus the police and some commentators attributed the murder to his unstable mental condition. No matter what the actual cause was—very likely a combination of factors—the public response has focused on the misogynistic anger expressed by the murderer, which has laid bare deeper issues embedded in gender relations in contemporary Korea.
Immediately after news of the attack went public, people, particularly women, started to write short messages on Post-it notes and put them on the wall near one of the exits of the Gangnam Station. Soon this ad hoc memorial was covered with more than a thousand Post-its. Those memos reveal a range of emotions— anger, fear, sadness:
You [the victim] are me
I am scared because I am a potential victim
Women have been subjected to discrimination. Now we have become subjected to murder
There won’t be any positive change unless we acknowledge that the cause of the crime was the deeply rooted sex discrimination in our society. I am a woman. I do not want to live in a society where I can be killed on the street simply because I am a woman.
Here is the outcry of women who survived. I am also a survivor … How many women in our country are free from physical humiliation, rape or the threat of death? I could have been the victim. I fear I could be next. I wish people would understand this incident not merely as an individual tragedy but the symptom of a sick society. I hope we will make slow but steady progress toward a better society.
The public outcry and mourning in response to this horrendous act of violence against a woman made it clear how strongly women identified with the victim. Furthermore, the individual reports of discrimination and sexual or verbal abuse in the family, school and workplace contained in these notes over and over again reflects how common and pervasive the experience is for Korean women, which in turn creates a sense of solidarity.
Those brief messages conveyed not only distress and emotional pain but also a strong sense of responsibility for creating social change toward justice. One woman’s tragedy brought to light the unspoken injustice that all women have to bear and magnified both the old and new challenges they have to face.
Korea has recently witnessed a rapid rise of misogyny on social media and in the real world. In an increasingly neoliberal economic and political space, competition for jobs is getting tougher and tougher. Women’s growing participation in the labour market has caused men to be antagonistic toward them, although in reality the majority of women workers are at the bottom level of the market economy hierarchy.
Even though women are much more likely to be relegated to ‘irregular positions’ in the job market, they are still blamed for the lack of job opportunities for men. In the domain of popular culture terms like ‘soybean paste girl’, referring to a young woman with a Starbucks coffee cup in her hand who obsesses about Western brand-name luxury items, are widely circulated as a way to ridicule and discipline ‘Westernised’ women.
The increasingly visible gender bashing should be understood in conjunction with the progress that has been made in the domain of gender over the past few decades
In the midst of the massive global flow of materials, images and tastes, women are continuously expected to be the bearer of Korean traditions that idealise frugality and industriousness in women. Conservative religious leaders and media-savvy propagandists have been ruthlessly mobilising the public through distorted representations of women and their lifestyle.
The increasingly visible gender bashing should be understood in conjunction with the progress that has been made in the domain of gender over the past few decades. Since the 1990s there has been remarkable progress in issues of women and gender in Korea. In particular, under the progressive presidencies of Kim Dae Jung (1998–2002) and Roh Moo Hyun (2003–07), a series of landmark laws were proposed and implemented.
Perhaps the most significant of all was the abolition in 2005 of the male-centred keystone of family law known as the ‘Family Head System’ (Hojuje). That law had enshrined male-centred gender relations that reproduced and reinforced unequal economic and sociocultural practices, and its abolition was a watershed event, shifting gender dynamics toward more equal and democratic relationships between women and men in the family and society.
In the realm of the economy, women’s participation in labour has gradually improved, reaching 50 per cent in 2013. Although the percentage of women political representatives in Korea still has not reached the OECD average, after the most recent national election, which took place in last April, women representatives were 17 per cent of the National Assembly, the highest level in Korean history. The popular (or notorious) image of ‘alpha girls’ in the media, referring to women who are successful, accomplished and ambitious, is indicative of the rise of women in the public sphere. And an active LGBT movement and the rise of multicultural families have begun to destabilise heteronormativity and the notion of ‘normal’ family and human relationships in Korea.
However, while all this impressive progress is cause of celebration, there is a real danger of ignoring continuing, underlying issues. For example, electing one woman as head of state gives people the impression that, when it comes to gender equality, the mission has been accomplished. Does that election of one woman really open the door? How many countries have had two, three or more women heads of state?
Many more opportunities available to women in various sectors of society have led people, especially those in the younger generation, to question the relevance of feminism for their lives. But the murder of one young woman in Seoul and the stories that fellow women shared in response to that violence are a powerful reminder that progress in gender equality is tangled up with the persistent gender norms and practices of old, as well as new challenges in the present.
Post-it notes on the wall near an exit of the Gangnam station after a young woman was stabbed to death. They reveal a range of emotions— anger, fear, sadness.