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[Editorial] Gender conflict

Aside from role of Gender Ministry, presidential candidates should not exploit gender clashes

When their ratings slide, politicians often use hot-button issues to stop the decline. Presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party followed this formula exactly, but whether he can pull off a turnaround is unclear.

On Friday, Yoon made a simple yet highly controversial Facebook post: “Abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.” The post has since attracted more than 11,000 comments and 34,000 likes on the social media.

As expected, Yoon’s message touched off a fresh round of controversy over gender conflicts in the nation in connection with the forthcoming presidential election.

Whether the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family -- which translates from Korean to English as the “Ministry of Women and Family” -- should be kept or disbanded has long been a hot topic among the political circles as well as gender-conscious people.

Some opponents say the ministry’s openly “women-oriented” policies -- the Korean name translates as the “Ministry of Women and Family” -- are unfair to men. The changing composition of Korean families warrants a new approach to female-male division, they argue. Meanwhile, the ministry’s supporters point out the country still needs a state agency dedicated to promoting rights for underprivileged women and addressing issues arising from a male-centered social structure.

Yoon’s post is apparently aimed at winning back the support of male voters in their 20s, following a significant fall in his ratings linked to an internal feud in his party.

Yoon’s gesture is widely interpreted as a sign that he is taking advice from People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok, who commands solid support from this particular demographic by calling some feminism-based policies discriminatory against men.

On Saturday, Yoon clarified his Facebook post by saying that he supports abolishing the ministry and replacing it with a new one that no longer separates men and women. He explained that this new ministry would deal comprehensively with the issues of children, family and population decline.

Yoon’s move is in line with his party’s policy. The main opposition party is generally in favor of the disbanding or reconfiguring of the Gender Ministry, citing overlapping policies with other state agencies.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea, in contrast, is opposed to abolishing the ministry, claiming it has made many achievements in advancing the rights of women.

The abolishment of the Gender Ministry, however, goes beyond a matter of the clashes between conservative and liberal policies. Rather, it could intensify gender conflict further, with radical voices from both sexes raising hostile voices toward each other.

Rekindling gender conflict is an easy way for presidential candidates to appeal to specific voter groups, but in the long term it is a short-sighted path that will likely generate more difficulties.

The Gender Ministry, as proponents argue, has espoused policies aimed at promoting gender equality in a nation where women’s rights and status have long been downplayed. For instance, the number of women in high-ranking positions at state agencies and private companies has been inching up, albeit that the pace is still too slow and the scope too limited.

But some of the ministry’s policies, such as the video game shutdown law, spawned more opponents. Critics also raised questions about the Gender Ministry’s “silence” when sexual abuse scandals involving high-ranking government officials broke out.

The gender conflict, as demonstrated by the dispute over the role of the Gender Ministry, has been a red-hot issue riddled with prejudice, misunderstanding and deep-rooted disparities in Korea’s social structure.

The upcoming presidential election should provide opportunities for the public as well as policymakers to re-examine the role of the Gender Ministry and whether it can be redefined. Regardless, exploiting gender conflict as a short-term gimmick to win votes should stop.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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