A Life Without Men? South Korean Women Take a Stand as National Election Draws Near

Photo via GRG Insights

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In South Korea, women have taken a stand and feminism has become a focal point of campaigns for the national legislative elections on April 10, 2024. The patriarchal society has long been governed without women in mind. For years, South Korea has failed to prosecute men who commit sex crimes against women, ignored increasingly common workplace sexual harassment, and refused to enforce laws—even as the country becomes one of the most dangerous places for women in the developed world. In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that over three quarters of male respondents admitted to committing violence against an intimate partner.

South Korea has the largest gender pay gap in the developed world, with women earning roughly $0.69 for every dollar that men earn. In addition to earning less money than men, Korean women also face rampant workplace discrimination, struggle to get jobs they are perfectly qualified for, and are expected to spend a significant portion of their earnings on trendy, new clothes and beauty products.

Image via OECD, 2024

The country’s current president, Yoon Suk Yeol, was elected on a campaign that disparaged the feminist movement, denied the existence of systemic misogyny, and promised the destruction of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family—a cabinet that coordinates national gender-related policy and seeks to expand women’s participation in society. Yeol’s party, the People Power Party (PPP), is South Korea’s primary conservative political organization; it is under pressure to retain government control through this election cycle. The PPP’s popularity has fallen recently as it faces several obstacles, including the growing feminist movement in South Korea. 

The 4B movement, as it is often called, is a strategy that women use to functionally eliminate men from their lives. The namesake comes from the 4 “no’s”: bihon (no marrying men), biyeonae (no dating men), bichulsan (no childbearing), and biseksuel (no sex with men). It is not just a political movement, but also a lifestyle. Women live by these four tenets to take a stand and keep themselves safe. Many also shave their heads, wear baggy clothing, and don’t wear makeup. Their physical appearance signals their political ideology and refusal to conform to societal beauty standards. 

The 4B movement has a substantial presence both online and in the real world. It started online as a reaction to the misogynistic and anti-feminist “Ilbe” community, a group of male-dominated websites and chat forums that rapidly gained popularity in 2014. The 4B movement then developed further as a branch of the #MeToo movement in 2018. South Korea was home to the first and largest #MeToo movement, in which women shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault. The online presence is particularly important given South Korea’s heavily developed digital infrastructure. It is one of the most wired countries in the world, and digital sex crimes—frequently occurring on Ilbe sites—are incredibly prevalent and chronically under-prosecuted. In 2023, over 240,000 illegal sexual photos and videos were found and deleted online. Feminists have leveraged the potential of online chat forums and websites to create female-only spaces where women can discuss common issues and potential solutions. 

From this online coalescence came the real-world 4B movement, which has had tangible effects on society—notably in the form of South Korea’s plummeting birth rate. For years, the nation has had the lowest rate in the world. It dropped to 0.72 in 2023, and is expected to continue falling to 0.64 in 2024, far below the 2.1 rate required for a steady population. The government has scrambled to try and fix the problem, but many of their “solutions” have only deepened women’s resolve. In 2016, the government published a “National Birth Map,” which documented the number of women of reproductive age in each district and outlined specific birth rate expectations. Women denounced these expectations online, feeling as though the map treated them like “cattle,” causing the birth rate to drop even further. Nearly eight years later, President Yeon and much of society are still entirely blaming women for the low birth rate. 

In the real world, feminists have held firm to their beliefs, even in the face of violence and harassment. Femicide rates are disastrous—as exemplified by the murder of a young woman in Seoul, which police refused to label a hate crime—and many of the 4B movement’s most prominent proponents cannot wear the signature cropped hairstyle due to fear of retribution. Park Ji-hyun, former leader of the liberal party opposing the PPP, had to quit her job and leave her home because her address was leaked, and she received increasingly violent death threats. 

Korea is almost entirely racially and ethnically homogenous; gender is the primary social division. For decades, South Korea has maintained a patriarchal society that keeps women oppressed under the threat of violence. Despite these dangers, women have fought back. Society feels the tangible effects of women’s solidarity, and one can only hope that the national legislative election will reflect those sentiments. 

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This article was edited by Brianna Budhram and Natasha Tretter.