Many South Korean women are so fed up with machismo that, in recent years, they’ve taken up a radical stance: refusing to marry, date men, have sex and reproduce. This movement—known as “the four no’s”—began in 2019. It has since spread, in the hope that the conservative government of Yoon Suk-yeol will adopt measures that promote gender equality.
Despite the solid academic credentials of women in South Korea, according to a study by Statista, the gender pay gap is scandalous: men earn 30% more than women. This makes the country, according to the Korean Herald, the most gender-unequal OECD nation.
Added to this is a poor work-life balance in South Korea, as well as a disparity in the distribution of domestic tasks. Women often assume the responsibility of raising children, pushing them to have to choose between working or being mothers. In South Korea, the work week is 52-hours-long.
The ”four no’s” is a desperate cry that arose after the incumbent South Korean president began his term. He has stated his intention to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The repercussions of the so-called “birth strike” have been severe for the country. For three consecutive years, the country has had the lowest fertility rate in the world, with an average of 0.78 children per woman.
“Life isn’t going well for many young people, for whom getting married or having children is no longer natural,” Lee Sang-lim, a demographer at the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs, told The New York Times.
The country is on alert, since an average of 2.1 children per woman is estimated to be necessary to keep the population stable. In 2020, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in South Korea. Many cities are at risk of disappearing in the coming years.
Hawon Jung, the author of Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea’s Feminist Movement, tells EL PAÍS that the movement was sparked by the governmental policies in a country that she considers to be very conservative.
“Single mothers are stigmatized, doctors refuse to give IVF to women without a male partner—even though it’s not illegal—and out-of-wedlock births represent only 2% of the total, compared to the average of 41% for women in the OECD. Marriage and childbirth are closely intertwined; women are pressured to sacrifice their career once they have a child or get married.”
Jung believes that the origin of the problem lies in the role of women since Confucianism—the prevailing ideology before the reforms of the 20th century. The philosophy advocated submissive daughters, chaste wives and self-sacrificing mothers. These beliefs were maintained due to a militarized society, where the concept of aggressive masculinity has been prevalent throughout history. This has applied from the Korean War (1950-1953) onwards, through the military dictatorship, to the ongoing confrontation with North Korea.
According to Jung, “countries where parents are more cooperative and have good family policies—such as Sweden—or that recognize the diversity of couples, like France, have been more successful in stabilizing or even increasing their birth rates.”
The movement of the “four no’s” reflects the radicalization of a frustration that has made women even opt to give up sex. According to Jung, “young women don’t consider it worth investing their time and energy into having affairs with men,” as they find it exhausting trying to find one who doesn’t follow patriarchal norms.
Feminist movements have, historically, been very effective in the country, achieving milestones such as the decriminalization of abortion in 2021, or changes in the notions of female beauty. The “escape of the corset” movement, for instance, rejects the rigid South Korean stereotypes associated with women, such as having long hair or following the K-pop beauty concept, which imposes the obligation on women to have porcelain skin, wear perfect makeup and undergo plastic surgery. It’s increasingly common to see South Korean women and girls with short hair, or daring to wear glasses rather than contact lenses. This has been a real revolution.
But there is still a long way to go in a country where gender violence doesn’t always lead to a charge or divorce. According to a survey published by the Korean Institute of Criminology and Justice, eight out of 10 men admitted to having been violent towards their partner.
Jennifer Jung-Kim, a professor of Korean History at UCLA, points out via email that, in order to solve the problems derived from the gender gap in South Korea, gender-based violence must be recognized and prosecuted as such.
“When it comes to the government and corporations, laws and policies must prohibit discrimination and guarantee equal pay and opportunities for women… especially working mothers. Socially, there needs to be a greater support system for working parents, so that either parent can take days off if a child is sick, or to attend a school meeting or event. And single parents, whether male or female, shouldn’t be stigmatized, regardless of whether they are adoptive or biological parents,” she explains.
For Jung-Kim, the most important thing is an internal change on the part of men.
“They must step up and take on household chores and childcare equally and support their wives in their career choices.”
Judy Han, a professor and vice chair of Undergraduate Affairs in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA, points out that the movement of the “four no’s” is an invitation to rebuild society.
“Can we imagine a world where women don’t have to shoulder the full burden of reproductive and domestic work, without being degraded or exploited? Where they could have marriage equality without throwing away their professional careers? Can women imagine a world without abuse, rape and violence?” she wonders.
This approach could work in many other democratic countries where gender inequality affects birth rates. Faced with an apparently unbeatable patriarchal system, more and more women around the world are choosing to give up having children, because they cannot reconcile their personal and professional lives. The consequences can push governments to act and shape entire societies.
According to Judy Han, “anyone—men and women, straight, queer, cisgender and transgender—would benefit from taking these criticisms seriously and creating a more just society.”
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