What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
This year is the 20th anniversary of South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), and, as has happened frequently over the course of those 20 years, its existence is under threat once again. It is important to note that the Korean name of the Ministry is 여성가족부, which literally translates to “Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Family”, and that the name itself has been the butt of criticism for years.
On July 6, Yoo Seong-min, a presidential primary candidate from the People Power Party, called for the abolishment of the MOGEF.
“Do we really need a separate Ministry of Gender Equality and Family?
Half of the population are women and all government departments have something to do with women’s issues.
Women’s health and welfare can be and should be taken care of by the Ministry of Health and Welfare; women’s jobs, discrimination at work, job training and reemployment for women with interrupted careers by the Ministry of Employment and Labor; support for startups and entrepreneurs by the Ministry of SMEs and Startups; issues of sex crimes, domestic violence, and date rape by the Ministry of Justice, prosecutors, and the police; and childrearing and childcare issues by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Education.
Anyone with common sense knows that these are projects that can be done well by another government agency.
If I become president, I will abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family…
The budget that overlaps with projects in other agencies will be allocated to the Korean GI Bill, for the young people who have completed their mandatory military service.
I will instead establish a Gender Equality Commission directly under the control of the president, and comprehensively mediate with all other government agencies, such as the Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Employment and Labor, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior and Safety, Ministry of SMEs and Startups, and the Ministry of Defense so that they can properly promote gender equality policies.
The president will serve as the chair of the commission, opening an era of true gender equality in which neither men nor women are unjustly discriminated against.”
— Yoo Seong-min, presidential primary candidate and member of the People Power Party, July 6, 2021.
Another People Power Party presidential primary candidate, Ha Tae-keung, also supported the abolishment of the MOGEF. His position was notable, as Ha has been a proponent of women’s empowerment.
“The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which ignores women in their 20s and 30s and only protects the women of the 586 Generation, deserves to be abolished!
As public opinion on the abolition of the MOGEF intensifies, the MOGEF is asking, ‘Who will protect the women victims?’ They’re saying that without the MOGEF, female victims cannot receive protection. They have raised a good point. Has the MOGEF really protected female victims? I collected and looked at all the past cases. I confirmed that the MOFEG has thoroughly ignored women in their 20s and 30s, who are the weak, and instead only protected the women with vested interests. They ignored women in their 20s and 30s, who were exposed to secondary victimization, yet were quick to take care of matters serving their own pursuit of power. So, the MOGEF has essentially been an institution that protects women with vested interests.”
— Ha Tae-keung, presidential primary candidate and assembly member of the People Power Party, July 8, 2021.
Spearheaded by the two presidential candidates, the pro-Yoo Seong-min line of the People Power Party generally supports the abolishment of the MOGEF, while others oppose the idea or have not made their positions official.
Jo Soo-jin, National Assembly member and a member of the Supreme Council of the People Power Party, opposed the abolishment of the MOGEF and instead argued for restructuring the ministry:
“… Fundamental questions about the function of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and about the ministry itself have been raised, particularly during the Moon Jae-in administration.
But as with most institutions, the cause of the problem is not in the institution itself but in the management.
The president appointed an unqualified person as the minister, and that minister has been treading carefully so as not to offend the president and the ruling party, creating the illusion that the institution itself is a mistake.
We have to seriously discuss the inequality that men in their 20s and 30s have been voicing.
Also, areas that require men’s specificity certainly exist.
For instance, in some of the countries in the Middle East, where women’s rights are less developed, wouldn’t it be difficult for a female diplomat to do the same work as a male diplomat?
But there are still areas where the gender gap is large, such as in job promotions, wages, and childcare.
Institutional improvement measures must be found.
This may be why over 90 UN member countries have a ministerial-level agency or organization responsible for “gender equality”.
In consideration of this, I proposed yesterday to change the name of the MOGEF to the Ministry of Gender Equality or the like and readjust its functions and roles.” 
— Jo Soo-jin, member of the National Assembly and the People Power Party, July 8, 2021.
The Democratic Party has been adamantly against the abolishment of the MOGEF.
“I disagree with the People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok and former National Assembly member Yoo Seong-min’s argument for the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Partial adjustment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s tasks is necessary, but the essential functions of the ministry should be maintained and strengthened. … Although the times and circumstances have changed greatly compared to the past, even in today’s society there are still many areas where women’s rights and interests should be promoted and women’s participation should be improved. Conflicts arising from deep-rooted sexism and patriarchal culture must also be continuously improved. Tasks regarding households and families are increasing too.
I believe it is necessary to adjust the role of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. But it is not right to call for the abolishment of the ministry, and I am concerned that this may be a populist idea based on hatred against a certain gender.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s aim of bringing ‘Equality in Daily Life’ is a value that should be realized not only for women but also for men and all the other socially disadvantaged. Politics that incite hatred and division or ride on their coattails are dangerous. I hope for the realization of politics that promotes the happiness of the whole community through harmony and kindness to others.”
— Lee Nak-yeon, presidential candidate and member of the Democratic Party, July 7, 2021.
“Regarding the issue of the MOGEF, among the youth, particularly among young men, there is a perception of reverse discrimination. They say, ‘Why only women? For instance, in civil service exams or company qualification exams, [men] fall behind women. We have to serve in the military, and we’re the ones being discriminated against.’ Their arguments are not groundless, but the problem is that, when we look at our society as a whole, it is still true that women face discrimination. They’re benefitting in certain areas but discriminated against in others, and I believe, for instance, that young men sometimes reap the benefits of the gender quotas.
So I believe that we should consider expanding the ministry to something like the Ministry of Equality or the Ministry of Gender Equality, since there are other areas of equality aside from gender equality. Simply abolishing it seems very irresponsible.”
— Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate and governor of Gyeonggi Province, July 12, 2021.
Minority parties with a seat in the National Assembly, namely the Justice Party, Basic Income Party, Open Democratic Party, People’s Party, and Transition Korea have either expressed opposition to the idea of abolishing the MOGEF or not made their official positions clear.
Yong Hye-in, the Basic Income Party’s sole National Assembly member, who made headlines in May by bringing her infant son to work, also opposed the abolishment of the MOGEF and criticized the proponents of the idea:
“Presidential candidates and the leader of the major opposition party brought up [the matter of abolishing the MOGEF], and I believe we can discuss whether the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is working well, whether it has worked for gender equality and to correct sexism in our society. But I wonder if it’s not just a way of taking the budget away from the issues of discrimination and inequality that certainly exist. I actually think that if the presidential candidates and leader of the major opposition party said this while being aware of the discrimination and inequality that women experience, then they’re really bad politicians. If they’re saying this without being aware of those things, then I think they’re really incompetent politicians.”
— Yong Hye-in, member of the National Assembly and the Basic Income Party, July 12, 2021.
The MOGEF held press conferences and interviews to explain its position as well. As the ministry handles not only matters of gender equality but also family, Vice Minister Kim Kyong-son said that the ministry implements policies that might not affect the general public as a whole but certain vulnerable groups:
“Regarding the abolishment of the MOGEF, I would like to explain the problems that would arise from this. First, it would be difficult to promote the projects that promote gender equality values. And it would be difficult to maintain the comprehensive support system for the victims of sexual violence. These projects for the victims of sexual violence and others that our ministry is currently undertaking are actually functionally organized involving many other agencies such as the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Health and Welfare. So these projects don’t belong to a specific ministry and are instead organized by function. In these cases, policies need to be designed more tightly to avoid blind spots, but there are still holes. And our ministry comprehensively supports these vulnerable groups.”
— Kim Kyong-seon, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, July 19, 2021.
Over the past 20 years, the MOGEF has made great strides in improving Korean society, such as the establishment of sexual and domestic violence counseling centers, abolishment of the patrilineal family register system, creation of the emergency call center for migrant women, establishment of a day to commemorate the victims of Japanese military sex slavery, and childcare projects.
Yet the ministry’s lack of response to the sexual harassment scandals involving politicians in the ruling party, namely the former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon and the former Busan mayor Oh Geo-don, as well as the recent decision to render Minecraft an R-rated game have really fanned the flames of the argument for abolishing the ministry.
The abolishment of the MOGEF is a highly controversial matter, as indicated by a public survey in which 48% of the respondents said the ministry should be abolished, whereas 41% were opposed to the idea.
Experts say that it would be important for the government to reassess the situation—examine the necessity of the MOGEF, streamline what can be streamlined, and figure out which policies are working and which aren’t, and decide what the ministry’s focus should be.
It is not only pointless but also exhausting to argue with the assumption that the other side is completely ignorant or extreme in their beliefs. If we could be only a little open-minded and less condescending, that would be a step toward actually seeing what needs to be done and how. Korean politicians should perhaps lend an ear to those in their 20s and 30s. An Edaily article, despite its rather conflict-triggering title of “Youth Divided on the Idea of Abolishing the MOGEF… ‘Waste of Blood-earned Tax’ vs. ‘Lack of Alternative’”, features Korean 20-somethings who say that politicians need to do better—when they bring up issues such as the abolishment of the MOGEF, they should explain how the budget will be reallocated and how the MOGEF’s actual functions will be delegated and maintained, rather than simply claiming to speak for the young people. Rather than arguing for an extreme, it’s time to find common ground in order to reduce gender conflict.