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A political divide along gender lines is growing in South Korea

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In South Korea, an ideological divide between young men and women is causing concerns about the country's future. Young men and women are drifting apart politically across the developed world. A recent Gallup survey showed young American women are 15 percentage points more liberal than young men. In South Korea, that political gap is more distinct, as NPR's Se Eun Gong reports from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Korean).

SE EUN GONG, BYLINE: "We vote for feminism," the crowd chants at a recent rally celebrating International Women's Day in Seoul. South Korea has a parliamentary election this week. And if the past few elections are any hint, many young Korean women will likely do just that - vote for progressive politics. Lee Sang-mi, a 31-year-old Seoul resident, was at the rally. She says gender equality is backsliding in South Korea, and she blames the current conservative government for it.

LEE SANG-MI: (Through interpreter) In fact, from the beginning, President Yoon Suk-yeol has used backlash against policies for women as a means to gain votes. His strategy has been to divide men and women and only take men's votes.

GONG: In the presidential election two years ago, Yoon ran on a pledge to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality. Young men were one of his most ardent supporters. Young women, however, were the least supportive. Go Min-hee is a politics professor at Ewha Women's University in Seoul. She says one of the reasons for this difference is that women's sense of autonomy has grown fast over the past decades. But their social and economic status hasn't caught up.

GO MIN-HEE: (Through interpreter) The gender gap in education has disappeared with the declining number of children and growing attention to education. But the income gap in the post-education labor market hasn't closed.

GONG: South Korea's gender wage gap remains the largest in the developed world. There are fewer women on corporate boards and in parliament than in most other affluent countries. But young men see things differently, says polling expert Jeong Han-wool.

JEONG HAN-WOOL: (Through interpreter) Men feel they are falling behind in competition, and they also have to serve in the military at an important time in their life.

GONG: In a 2019 survey, he found that nearly 70% of Korean men in their 20s think discrimination against men is serious. Many point to mandatory conscription of men as an example. At Seoul's Chung-Ang University, we met a 22-year-old engineering student, Kim Sung Hyun. He says he will vote for the ruling conservative party in the upcoming election, partly because of its position on gender issues. He's against some policies that the Gender Ministry has pushed for, such as increasing female representation in police and military.

KIM SUNG HYUN: (Through interpreter) I feel men and women each have their strengths and weaknesses. It's strange to ignore that and call for equality on such matters.

GONG: But he thinks policy preferences alone cannot explain today's political gender divide.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I think young people tend to see the main political parties positions as something more extreme than what they really are, because they are so exposed to social media.

GONG: Social media is one of the main reasons the political gender gap is widening in many developed countries, according to Alice Evans, a visiting fellow at Stanford University who studies global gender norms.

ALICE EVANS: In your echo chamber, you're telling each other how unfair it is. So men increasingly expressing resentment that, you know, many will feel that the world is giving women a better chance, women - giving women handouts and nothing to us.

GONG: Experts are concerned that the growing political and emotional distance between men and women can be dangerous, not just for the health of South Korea's democracy but also for the country's survival. South Korea's birth rate is already the lowest in the world, and young people are increasingly unenthusiastic about marriage. Here's Ewha University Professor Go Min-hee again.

GO: (Through interpreter) If women don't find a person that fits their evolving preferences in the dating market, they will choose to not meet anyone.

GONG: After all, she says, if women want politicians to be feminists, they would want the same for their life partners. Se Eun Gong, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Se Eun Gong