South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has defended his plan to abolish the country’s ministry of gender equality, insisting it will lead to better women’s rights.
Yoon, a Conservative who took office in May, is expected to face stiff opposition to the move, which must be approved by the National Assembly, in which the liberal opposition Democratic Party holds a majority.
Yoon has accused the ministry of treating men like “potential sex criminals” and has promised to introduce tougher penalties for making false sexual assault claims – a move campaigners say will discourage even more women from coming forward.
On Friday, he tried to allay fears that the ministry’s abolition would set back the cause of women’s rights in South Korea as it struggles to address its poor record on gender equality.
“Abolishing the gender ministry is about strengthening protections for women, families, children and the vulnerable,” he told reporters, according to Yonhap news agency.
Yoon defeated his liberal opponent, Lee Jae-myung, with strong support from young “anti-feminist” men who believed their grievances were being ignored by a new focus on gender issues created by the #MeToo movement.
While there have been minor improvements in women’s rights – including the decriminalization of abortion in early 2021 and better enrollment rates in higher education – South Korea has the highest gender pay gap among OECD countries, with women earning on average a third less than their male counterparts.
Women are poorly represented in boardrooms and the National Assembly, while activists have urged authorities to take action against an epidemic of spy cam crime known as molka.
The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report ranks South Korea 99th out of 146 countries in an index examining jobs, education, health and political representation.
In September, the government faced calls to increase penalties for stalkers after a woman was murdered at work by a male ex-colleague who had been stalking her for three years.
Home and Security Minister Lee Sang-min said this week that government policies should aim to ensure equality between men and women, criticizing the current focus on women’s inequality.
Lee said the gender ministry’s responsibilities would be shifted to the health and labor ministries, adding that the government plans to set up a new agency to be responsible for population, family and equality issues.
Democratic Party lawmakers said scrapping the ministry would undermine South Korea’s commitment to gender equality.
“It is evident that government programs related to family, youth and gender equality, for which the Department of Gender has been responsible, are being reduced,” it said in a statement. “It is time to strengthen, not weaken, the role and function of the gender ministry.”
The Korea Times accused Yoon and his conservative People Power party of “exploiting the gender gap for political gain” by delivering on his campaign promise to abolish the ministry.
The newspaper urged Yoon to reconsider his “ill-conceived plan,” saying the move “could do more harm than good” and “goes against the global trend of advocacy for women’s empowerment.”