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Gender equality has become a polarizing issue in South Korea's presidential election


Voters in South Korea head to the polls to pick a new president tomorrow. One of the most contentious issues of this election has been gender equality. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that recent progress in women's rights has been met with a backlash against feminism, which is driven by young men.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The latest polls ahead of the election show the two main parties' candidates in a dead heat. Minor parties' candidates lag far behind. Lee Jae-myung is the liberal ruling Democratic Party candidate. Yoon Suk-yeol represents the conservative opposition, People Power Party. Yoon argued last month that structural gender discrimination does not exist in South Korea. Lee asked him in a debate last week if he still believes that.


YOON SUK-YEOL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I can't say there's none," he said. "But what's important is that we don't divide men and women into groups and approach this as an issue of gender equality." Yoon Suk-yeol has also promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. That pledge increased his support in the polls, but enraged feminists.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Lee Jae-myung. Lee Jae-myung.

KUHN: At a rally for Lee Jae-myung in Seoul last week, activist Park Ji-hyun argued that the ministry doesn't just promote equality, it helps victims of sexual violence and single mothers with kids. And Yoon's policies threaten those women.


PARK JI-HYUN: (Through interpreter) Our survival depends on who gets elected. Misogyny has never come to the fore like it has in this election.

KUHN: South Korea still lags behind other developed economies in terms of the wage gap between men and women and women's political participation. Many young South Korean men, though, feel they're losing out to women in the cutthroat competition to find jobs, schools and homes. The political rise of the young men is personified by People Power Party leader, 36-year-old Harvard graduate Lee Jun-seok. In a TV debate last year, he said that he's not against women. He just feels affirmative action is no longer necessary.


LEE JUN-SEOK: (Through interpreter) I never called for women to be put at a disadvantage. All I said was that these benefits are excessive. They amount to reverse discrimination and should be amended now that times have changed.

KUHN: He has also compared radical feminists to terrorists. But Kwon Soo-hyun, director of the civic group Korea Women's Political Solidarity, argues that the young men are not the heart of the problem.

KWON SOO-HYUN: (Through interpreter) Rather than seeing the 20-something men's perception of reality too negatively, I think we should point out that politicians are using it in this election.

KUHN: Kwon argues that candidates can look like they're heeding the young men's demands simply by making a few easy changes that actually help the men very little.

KWON: (Through interpreter) The key is that these politicians are actually not interested in the real problems experienced by the 20-something men. The demands the men are making are not that hard to meet.

KUHN: Polls show that South Korean young males tend to vote more conservative and young females more liberal. Kwon notes that 20-something female voters show the strongest support for smaller third parties, and she'll be looking at how they vote Wednesday to gauge the chances of a shift away from the current two-party system.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.


Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.