After years of being hidden away in online forums, South Korea’s feminist movement is coming out of the shadows. But can their struggle against spycams, femicide, and rigid beauty standards sway a nation with one of the worst records on gender equality in the world?
AROUND A YEAR and a half ago, Rachel Park (not her real name), was on her way to meet friends in Seoul. Standing on the near-empty subway platform, she noticed a man directly behind her. Uncomfortable with how close he was, Park moved to a different part of the station. But something was off—he was still behind her. As she watched him through the station’s reflection, she saw the man angle his phone toward her. Then, she heard a loud shutter noise.
“I thought to myself, maybe it would be better if I just pretended I didn’t notice anything, so I just kept still.”
But then they made eye contact.
The man acted like he was taking a selfie, but looked noticeably flustered, Park recalled. The train arrived. As soon as she got on, Park moved to a different car, but to her dismay, saw the man was still following her. She sat down, purposely choosing a crowded row of seats. She saw the man take out his phone again and angle it in a way that was without a doubt not for a selfie. She had been hearing about the increasing prevalence of women being unlawfully videotaped and photographed in the news, so Park made up her mind to walk over to him. “There are so many instances these days of illegal photography and I’m a bit concerned. Would it be possible for you to show me your phone?’”
In a nonchalant and casual voice, he obliged, but he refused to open his photo album.
She was certain now that this was indeed illicit photography. She tried to grab his phone, but he pushed her, causing her to fall backward onto the ground. He cursed at her loudly, which drew attention from the other passengers on the train. When the train doors opened, the man tried to run out, but bystanders grabbed him after Park explained what had happened. After multiple phone calls the police finally arrived, but they seemed exasperated by her and somewhat dismissive of the situation, Park said. She then went to the station to file a report, where a police officer warned her that if it turns out the man didn’t take the photos, she might get into a lot of trouble.
When authorities opened up the perpetrator’s phone, they found hundreds of photos of women, all of which appeared to be taken without their knowledge.
Filming or taking pictures of people without their consent—whether in public or private—is against the law in South Korea, but the number of instances of this type of activity has been rising steadily for the past few years. The victims of this crime are almost always female, and the perpetrators largely male. The misdeeds can take many forms, from the creepy—as when photos are taken of individuals without their permission—to the more overtly nefarious, such as sex tapes secretly taken by partners which are then sometimes distributed online, and footage taken by spycams hidden in bathrooms, subways, changing rooms, and motel rooms. It has also become one of the central pillars of the modern South Korean feminist movement. Although not new—feminism on the Korean peninsula dates back almost a century, when its main objectives were to promote women’s status as citizens and protest Japanese colonialism—the media coverage of cases of illegal photography has been helping the movement gain increasing momentum in recent years.
Between 2012 and 2017, only around 540 of a total of 20,924 male suspects were placed under detention for illegal filming in the country, according to a report by Korea Exposé, making detentions a rare outcome for those accused of the crime. In 2017, 5,437 people were arrested for reported spycam offenses, but only around 2 percent were charged.
On June 9, 2018, close to 22,000 women gathered in Seoul to call for an end to the sale of spycams, and an investigation into the men who produce, distribute, and watch illegal photography. Holding signs that read, “My life is not your porn,” they came to protest the rampant prevalence of illegal photography in the country, and what they saw as the complicity of police and other authorities in the crimes. One popular hashtag among Korean feminists on Twitter, #?????_?????, roughly translates to “Police? I could have mistaken them for perpetrators.”
The scene sparked moderate media attention, from both domestic and international news outlets. But what was so compelling about this protest, aside from the sheer number of the participants, was that, despite the weather, almost every single person present at the event wore face masks and sunglasses and donned hats pressed down to cover as much of themselves as possible. They sat in the hot summer heat for hours.
Anonymity is an indispensable part of the feminist movement in Korea, whether it’s online or in real life. Megalia, an anonymous online feminist forum established in 2015, was the first collective meeting point for many self-identifying Korean feminists to collaborate and correspond with one another.
Megalia was created in the midst of the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus) outbreak in Korea in the summer of 2015. On a South Korean internet forum initially created to discuss MERS, discussions devolved into the condemnation and sexist mockery of two women who were accused of travelling abroad on a shopping trip while they were supposed to be quarantined within the country. After the rumor was proven false, the forum became a battleground between South Korean male and female users, in which derogatory terms usually used to ridicule women were flipped, reclaimed, and repurposed by women to “mirror” the misogyny they saw. Kimchi-nyeo ??? (Kimchi-woman/bitch), a term typically used to condemn superficial Korean women, morphed into Kimchi-nam ??? (Kimchi-man). Doenjang-nyeo (Soybean paste-woman/bitch), which carries similar meaning, transformed as well.
Eventually, the female users left to establish Megalian.com. The “M” in the name refers to the original MERS board, while the rest is a nod to Egalia’s Daughters, a novel by feminist author Gerd Brantenberg. The site was intended to be bold and brash; the Megalia logo, of an index finger and a thumb held closely together, mocks the supposed size of South Korean men’s penises. Continuing the act of “mirroring,” the snarky collective posted headlines like, “Let’s get an abortion if we become pregnant with a son,” for which they quickly garnered criticism and were declared “extreme.” Ironically enough, many of the posts were intentionally re-written posts from other sites with the gender pronouns switched to combat the type of sexism found on sites such as Ilbe—?a far right conservative forum known for its misogynistic content. Sometimes the “mirroring” strategy misfired, however. In October 2015, an anonymous user’s identity was revealed after she uploaded a post vocalizing a desire to have sex with a young boy. She explained that she was merely trying to bring awareness to the fact that male-dominated boards routinely discuss sexual desires for underage girls.
Yet, Megalia claims it has brought tangible change to the gender disparities found in a country that ranks 116th place out of 144 countries in gender equality, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum. They list the recalling of a controversial Maxim cover that glorified sexual crime; the funds they’ve raised to help single mothers; and the disappearance of Soranet, the largest porn site in South Korea infamous for its revenge porn, underaged porn, rape, and other illegal content, as some of their major successes.
The consequences of declaring yourself a feminist in South Korea—even in the most minor way—can be immediate and severe. In the summer of 2016, a voice actress at a Korean video game publisher posted a photo of herself on Twitter wearing a shirt with the words “Girls Do Not Need a Prince.” Users quickly recognized that the T-shirt was created and sold by Megalia and called for her termination. She was taken off two games for which she was originally cast. Even celebrities seem vulnerable to this sort of criticism. Son Na-eun, of the popular K-pop group Apink, posted a photo of herself on Instagram in February 2018 holding a phone case that read “Girls Can Do Anything.” A fierce backlash, accusing Son of promoting feminism, caused her to delete the post and her agency to release a statement saying that the case was merely a gift from a French fashion brand, and that it had no other meaning.
But despite the risks, there was one critical event that led many women in South Korea to reconsider the term “feminist.” In May 2016, a 23-year-old woman was brutally murdered at a unisex bathroom near Gangnam station. The perpetrator, a 34-year-old man only identified by his last name, Kim, did not know the victim, but waited for almost an hour letting several men pass by before attacking the first woman who entered, according to CCTV footage. He stabbed her multiple times with a sushi knife that measured more than 12 inches.
When asked why he committed the crime, Kim stated that it was because he had been continuously humiliated and ignored by women, and, as a result, he hated them. A court, citing Kim’s mental illness, said that the case could not be categorized as a hate crime against women. However, many South Korean women saw the event in light of the larger context of unchecked misogyny and violent language against women in the country.
“After the Gangnam Station Murder, I felt like I was enlightened,” said a 25-year-old South Korean student and self-identifying feminist. “I searched online for ‘feminism’ after hearing about that crime, and it eventually led me to realize that the reason I was treated differently in high school, college, and even at home was due to gender discrimination.”
South Korean women took to the station and covered its entrance with post-it notes expressing their sympathy and anger, along with chrysanthemums—the nation’s symbol for mourning—as a means of denouncing the femicide while maintaining anonymity. Twitter also erupted using the hashtags, #????, “Gangnam Murder,” and #????, “#ISurvived.” As the outcry of women feeling unsafe because of their gender grew, as if on cue, a “Don’t Hate Men” counter-protest appeared. The Gangnam Station murder sparked a national discussion about gender inequality, and allowed enough leeway to separate the subject from Megalia and others that had so far dominated the idea of what feminism was for many in South Korea.
The event also seems to have had longer-term effects in Korea. Kim Han-Ryeo-il, owner of Doing Cafe, which Kim describes as a networking space for feminists, cites the Gangnam Station murder as one of the motivations behind opening her shop. Her goal was to provide a place where feminists could discuss and share different opinions, she explained in a 2017 interview with the Ewha University newspaper. And according to South Korea’s largest bookstore chain, Kyobo, there was a 19 percent increase in sales of feminist books last November compared with the same period the previous year.
Realizing how endangered and restricted their lives were as a result of their gender, some South Korean women began examining other facets of living in a patriarchal society. The “escape the corset” movement, #????, surfaced in the summer of 2018, and challenges South Korea’s strict beauty ideals. Participants use social media posts as a medium to showcase photos of destroyed makeup kits and shaved heads, paired with hashtags like #feminist.” This is a compelling turn in South Korea, where close to 1 million plastic surgery procedures are carried out every year, and about 1 in 3 South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 has gone under the knife, according to Gallup Korea. It is also one of the largest cosmetics markets in the world, and the expectation that women wear makeup when out in public is intense. Ironically enough, as American women were embracing South Korea’s 10-step skincare routines, some South Korean women were seeking freedom from the laborious beauty regimes.
The movement is largely credited to former makeup YouTuber Bae Lina, who posted a video entitled “I am not pretty” in June 2018. The post has garnered more than seven million views since it was first uploaded. The clip starts with Bae with a makeup-free face and shows her putting on a full face of makeup. As the video progresses, captions show messages that many South Korean women say they hear often in their day-to-day lives: “You should at least fill in your brows” and “If you put in a bit of effort, you’d look pretty.” Around two-thirds into the video, Bae begins to take off her makeup until she is completely barefaced, and then puts on her glasses. She smiles into the camera while a message appears: “I’m not pretty, but it’s OK to not be pretty. Don’t torture yourself because of how people see you.” The video ends with a final line: “I’m always rooting for you.”
Although the Gangnam Station murder helped South Korea’s feminist movement gain traction and visibility, there is still a long way to go before the struggle for gender equality is embraced by the culture at large. Even the charges against Rachel Park’s perpetrator were dropped after her mother went behind Park’s back to put an end to the case because she didn’t think it was a big deal. And a police officer that was handling her case told her “It’s his first offense,” even though the man’s photo album was proof that this wasn’t a one-time occurrence.
Soon afterward, Park wrote about the incident anonymously online and was approached by a feminist protest organizer who asked her if she would be willing to share her story at an upcoming rally. She didn’t feel she could do it, but instead gave them permission to read aloud what she had written. When her incident was mentioned in a news article about the protest, commenters online accused the story of being fake.
“There’s no proof. You know what that means,” one commenter wrote.
By Chaewon Chung and Yeji Lee
Illustration by Jisu Choi
Photo by Chaewon Chung
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUST