by James Pearson
SEOUL, Nov. 27 (Yonhap) -- An annual report by the World Economic Forum on gender equality lowered South Korea's ranking by a notch for this year, placing it 108th out of 135 countries. Gender bias is often blamed on Korea's history of Confucianism for lowering the social position of women, and these days, perhaps nowhere else is the bias more prominent that on the country's Internet.
A series of so-called "Ladygate" incidents that frequently emerge in the local news cycle have been shared and voted upon by netizens, making them highly-ranked articles on popular search engine sites. Netizens also frequently register impulsive and reactionary comments that they probably would have kept to themselves if not for the anonymity of cyberspace.
A Ladygate incident generally involves a Korean woman behaving in a manner deemed socially unacceptable, and being covertly filmed with a smartphone camera. The video is then uploaded and shared on one of the major Korean online portals.
In some cases, criticism of the female subject is less disputed. One video, depicting "Heel Girl" shows one young woman attacking another, using the bottom of her high-heeled shoes as a blunt weapon. Another video, "Cup Noodle Girl," merely shows a young teenager eating a cup of instant noodles on the Seoul subway -- illegal, but harmless to others.
"There is always pressure on us as Korean females to fit into the stereotype of the traditional Korean home-making women," said Kim Hyo-jin, a graduate student at Seoul National University. "When we behave in an ungirly manner or act in any way that contradicts this old-fashioned image of how a woman is supposed to be, we are looked down on. This could explain why there are more 'Ladygates' than 'Mangates.'"
Regardless of the severity of the incident, however, the stories never fail to top user-generated news rankings on top Korean portals such as Nate, Naver and Daum, largely because of the huge number of comments each incident generates.
The most popular comments rarely suggest the incidents are unrelated, or occurred as a result of some set of unexplained and off-camera circumstances. Instead, these incidents become a platform to vent against Korean women, to the extent that online slang has evolved to accommodate the trend.
"Beanpaste Girls," first popularized on the Korean Internet in the early 2000s, refers to young Korean women who live frugally on cheap food, like beanpaste stew, to save money to buy luxury brand clothes and accessories.
"Boseulachi," a term combining the Korean words for a body part and an ancient government official, is used specifically for women deemed to be acting with a degree of undeserved self-importance and try to rebut online misogynists.
Beth Grace, a specialist in early 20th century Korean feminist writing at the University of Cambridge, says some of the women who attempt to defend the position of women online will often "adjust their viewpoint in order to please their male counterparts."
"From a feminist perspective, this is a naturally damaging practice, since it limits women's freedom of expression," said Grace.
A newer term is "Kimchi Girls," which describes women who allegedly reject a Korean way of life in favor of a more Westernized lifestyle, yet cannot rid of the smell of kimchi.
"Korean women are presented with images of sexy female celebrities, but are then made to feel dowdy in comparison; if they don't look like that, they're 'ugly.' But when they attempt to look like that, they're labeled 'Beanpaste' or 'Kimchi' girls,'" said Daniel Tudor, the Korea correspondent for the Economist and author of "Korea: The Impossible Country."
The terms are used liberally, freely, and with general consensus among a growing horde of netizens. Although sexist comments are certainly not reserved to the Korean Internet alone, (one only needs to spend five minutes on YouTube to discover a similar sentiment on the English-language Internet), Korean netizens have a particularly loud voice -- supported by a convenient platform created by the media, which draws attention to these "Ladygate" incidents.
"As the recession puts pressure on everybody, men feel pushed over the edge; they start getting the idea that they're forced to compete with women for jobs," said Prof. Chin Jung-kwon of Dongyang University on his Twitter account. "Then they start arguing over 'extra credits' for their military service when applying for those jobs. 'We've fallen behind because of our two years of military service. Give us extra credits.' They're desperate."
According to blogger James Turnbull, who calls himself the "Korean Gender Guy" and runs the blog "The Grand Narrative," this economic competition between men and women is largely imagined by those that propagate its apparent influence.
"Korea had the highest number of salarymen in the OECD before the Asian financial crisis, and as a result of the restructuring it would actually come to have the most irregular workers instead. Just taking 10 years, this was an amazingly dramatic, transformative shift."
"Whereas the overall female workforce participation rate has stagnated in that period, remaining close to bottom in the OECD, women formed the bulk of those irregular workers, and so were the first to be fired in the latest crisis," he said. "Taking a wild guess that a lot of the most vocal gender friction these days comes from men at the bottom of the economic heap, i.e. those most likely to be directly competing with women for those low-paid, temporary jobs, then it seems reasonable to suppose that economic competition is a direct cause of many of the 'Ladygate' episodes we're seeing."
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