South Korea is in the midst of a feminist awakening, one where a small, but increasingly visible community is challenging everything from spy cam porn and sex sites explicitly documenting instances of sexual assault to one of the worst pay gaps in the developed world and a culture obsessed with insanely high standards of beauty.
But these demands for gender equality and greater protection from sexual predators have also given rise to another group—men who feel threatened by these groups and are lashing out in online forums and the city's streets. And now, this movement of reactionary men has its own poster boy—Jung San, a 34-year-old rapper more popularly known as San E.
San E waded into this fight last month with "Feminist"—a song that railed against Korea's feminist community and included lines like "You’ll probably say among OECD countries / Korea has a gender pay gap of blah blah blah / Fucking fake fact."
It's not a "fake fact," women actually do earn 37.8 percent less than men in South Korea. And there's a lot more in "Feminist," as well, including points about women also needing to join the armed forces (military service is compulsory for all men in South Korea) and some whining about giving women seats on the subway.
You can watch the lyric video, which includes English subtitles, below:
The backlash came swift, with multiple rappers recoding diss tracks, including a pretty cutting one by a female rapper called Sleeq, where she rapped: “What you want is for women to serve in the military / What I want is for men not to kill women.”
San E tried to roll back on the views expressed in his song, telling the local press that the song was just some poorly received satire. No, San E said, he doesn't actually believe any of the stuff he rapped in "Feminist." He was just using the song to portray a character who did. And then, last weekend, he decided to dive right back into the controversy... fists swinging.
When the rapper took the stage at Brand New Music's year-end concert, the crowd started to boo. San E, feeling that the audience had turned against him, then launched into a tirade against two of the biggest radical feminist communities in Korea—WOMAD and Megalia.
In a video of the show, the thing that seems to finally set San E off is when a doll of a pig with the words "Die. San E sucks. Die," scrawled across it lands on the stage.
"Throwing this thing at me in the middle of the concert... I have... for the WOMAD and the Megals who came here, [I have] just one thing to say to you: I don't give a fuck," San E said. "WOMAD is poison. Feminists, no, you're all mentally ill.... I'm here for the ones who love me. For the ones who don't the ones who say I suck and throw things at me, for those who don't respect me at all, I don't feel the need to respect any of you either."
He later tried to dismiss the entire incident as fake news, claiming that he was the real victim here. HIs management and entertainment agency apologized for the incident, and San E then doubled down once again with another song attacking WOMAD and Megalia.
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And just like that, San E threw his celebrity into the fray of one of the most vicious, and bloody, fights over gender rights occurring in Asia right now. In 2016, a member of Ilbe, a far-right men's rights message board that rose to notoriety by sending death threats to K-pop stars, stabbed a woman to death in the bathroom of a busy train station in Seoul. He later told the press that he decided to kill a random woman because "women always ignored me."
Another men's rights activist, Sung Jaegi, the leader of a group called "Man of Korea," accidentally killed himself in a bizarre publicity stunt on Seoul's Mapo Bridge. Before the incident, Sung penned a note saying that he was prepared to risk his life to raise enough money to pay off the debts of his men's rights group. He didn't survive the fall.
Korea's radical feminist boards latched onto the story, and soon his last name became a appropriated in the phrase jaegihae (재기해), which can mean "kill yourself." You can hear women chanting jaegihae at the start of San E's song, another pretty obvious jab at the groups.
Megalia was born from an earlier, but similar online spat between feminists and men's rights activists that broke out, weirdly enough, in a discussion about the Middle Eastern MERS virus. Someone then made the site megalian.com, where a culture of repeating toxic statements back to men, but with the genders swapped, rose.
The site represents a new breed of direct, provocative, gender rights activism in Korea. The site has created their own slang, like using "Papa" as a reference to men who have affairs on their wives in Southeast Asia and then leave their illegitimate children behind, and prefers an edgy sense of humor, their logo is a hand with two fingers close together—a dig at Korean men's statistically smaller penis sizes.
The site's users then successfully took down Sora, an illegal porn site that was rape culture embodied. It featured secret spy cam videos shot in bathroom and bedrooms and long discussions about sexual assaults that the users claimed to be planning.
WOMAD, a portmanteau of "woman" and "nomad," is a similar site, but one where the rhetoric gets far more extreme. The site was born out of a disagreement between Megalia members when the latter decided to ban homophobic and transphobic hate speech from the forum.
Some of the board's contributors recently made headlines by lashing out at the LGBTQ community, with one poster writing "the beginning of the women’s movement should begin with the gay slaughter movement."
But as WOMAD courts controversy, the wider conversation about gender rights and equality is still struggling to find a wider audience in South Korea. A K-pop singer was recently accused of "promoting feminism" because her phone case read "girls can do anything." And another celeb, actress Jung Yu-mi, was slammed with hate comments after announcing that she would star in a film adaptation of the feminist book Kim Ji Young Born 1982.
And now the entire movement is back in the press because a rapper can't handle women calling for greater rights—a sign that this fight is far from over in South Korea.