South Korea's New Conservative President Will Likely Setback Peace and Gender Equality | Opinion

Amid rising housing prices and concerns about the economy, South Korean voters recently narrowly elected conservative Yoon Suk-yeol as their next president. He defeated Lee Jae-myung, of President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party. Yoon's win promises to reverse progress made on two key fronts: peace with North Korea and women's rights.

In a repudiation of outgoing president Moon's rapprochement with North Korea, Yoon opposes an end-of-war declaration with North Korea and takes a harder stance against China—a position that will surely raise tensions in the region. President-elect Yoon has called an end-of-war declaration "premature" that lacked national consensus. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Unification Advisory Council, 67 percent of South Korean adults believe an end-of-war declaration is "necessary."

While Moon's push for an end-of-war declaration failed to gain momentum, his historic summit meetings with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un resulted in several tangible reductions in tensions, such as de-mined portions of the De-Militarized Zone, the reunion of separated families and the creation of a joint liaison office in Kaesong. These meetings also laid the foundation for the first summit meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, which led North Korea to dismantle its rocket launch site in Dongchang-ri and a nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, release three detained Americans, return 55 boxes of remains of U.S. servicemen and voluntarily halt its nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Yoon is a proponent of CVID—the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program—a policy that has failed for decades. In other words, he believes North Korea must hand over all of their nuclear weapons before offering any security assurances such as a peace agreement. He aims to achieve this via "peace through power"—normalizing U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and by developing pre-emptive strike capability against North Korea. Yoon opposes suspending joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises because he believes it will cause a rift in the alliance between Washington and Seoul. Yet these exercises—which are based on an operation plan that reportedly includes preemptive strikes and "decapitation" of North Korean leadership—have shown to actually raise tensions with North Korea and incite provocative rhetoric and actions.

During most of Moon's presidency, South Korea (the tenth largest economy in the world) has navigated the great power competition between Washington and Beijing through "strategic ambiguity" by maintaining its security alliance with the United States and its partnership with its largest trading partner, China. But Yoon promises a harder line against China, including further deploying the U.S.' Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system as a counter to China's growing military power. China has reacted negatively to the expansion of THAAD, saying it goes beyond protecting South Korea to infringing on China's security. For that reason, South Korean villagers are protesting the THAAD system because it puts them squarely in the crossfire of a potential conflict between the U.S. and China.

As evidenced by prior conservative administrations, Yoon's presidency may also have a chilling effect on South Korea's peace movement. Former President Park Geun-hye harbored a blacklist of nearly 10,000 artists, activists and cultural icons, including Oscar-winning Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, who were critical of her administration. I was also banned by the Park administration from entering South Korea, my homeland, as retribution for a women's DMZ peace walk I helped organize. President Moon quickly overturned this.

Before Park, the former conservative President Lee Myung-bak established a team within the Korean Central Intelligence Agency to monitor public opinion online and post comments alleging that the opposition candidates were pro-North Korean. In line with such actions, Yoon's wife, Kim Keon-hee, said she would imprison journalists who have been critical of her husband.

Yoon's promise to abolish the Ministry of Family and Gender Equality will also be a major setback for women's rights. If he follows through on his promise, it will reverse important progress on gender discrimination and women's rights. The ministry, which only receives 0.2 percent of the national budget, provides social welfare for children and families. Of this paltry sum, only 3 percent goes to advancing gender equality in a country where women only earn roughly 67.7 percent of men's monthly wages, the highest wage gap among developed countries.

President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korea's President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a news conference. KIM HONG-JI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Women are noticeably absent in politics and corporate boardrooms. The misogyny is so deep in South Korea that in 2016, only 1.9 percent of women who experienced sexual violence asked the police for help, according to the ministry. Things started to change in 2016 after a woman was murdered in Seoul's Gangnam district, prompting South Korean women to begin sharing their experiences with violence and misogyny. While President Moon extended the statute of limitations and punishment time for sexual harassment crimes, not enough has been done to close the gender wage gap and protect women.

Unfortunately, Yoon is part of the rising backlash against feminism in South Korea, where 79 percent of men in their twenties feel "seriously discriminated against" due to their gender, according to the Hankook Ilbo. Yoon is among a growing number of conservative leaders railing against gender equality. "It is not a coincidence that women's equality is being rolled back at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise," Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks wrote in Foreign Affairs. That's because democracy and women's rights go together, or as the Korean Association of Women's United logo says, "Feminism Improves Democracy."

"Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women's political participation," cautioned Chenoweth and Marks. Women's participation in mass movements "are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy."

Women's greater political participation would also have positive implications for peace in Korea. Research shows that when women are involved in peace processes, an agreement is more likely to be reached and to last. A study from Georgetown University showed that between 1991 and 2017, women's groups were involved in 71 percent of informal peace processes, and their participation helped to legitimize the formal peace process among the public.

To counter the threats to peace and gender equality under a Yoon presidency, South Korea will need the active participation of women. Feminists are powerful agents for peace and democracy. Yoon, and South Korea's democratic allies in the West, cannot afford to dismiss them.

Christine Ahn is the founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.