South Korea’s Feminist 4B Movement: An Explainer
Cho Nam-Joo’s 2016 novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, is a devastating read. It relates an everywoman’s daily experiences of relentless sexism, inequality and misogyny in contemporary South Korea. It is also a book that helped kickstart the country’s 4B Movement. Because, like Nam-Joo’s heroine, South Korean women have had enough.
Worn down by the gender discrimination that inhabits all corners of their society, 4B Movement followers don’t just want to fight against patriarchy, but move away from it altogether. As well as Nam-Joo’s novel, 4B drew inspiration from the Escape The Corset campaign that took shape in the country in 2017, thanks to pioneers including Jeon Bora, who photographed women who had shaved their heads as an act of rebellion, and Summer Lee, who filmed herself without makeup, and wearing baggy, ‘boyish’ clothes. Both were documenting South Korean women’s attempts to throw off male domination and helped to attract a growing following for 4B.
4B is based on four principles: Bihon (no to heterosexual marriage), Bichulsan (no to childbirth), Biyeonae (no to dating), and Bisekseu (no to heterosexual sexual relationships). The movement’s proponents such as YouTubers Lina Bae (a beauty influencer who shares her experiences of unattainable beauty standards) and Baek Ha-na and Jung Se-Young, post updates on its aims and progress. “After studying feminism and non-marriage I’ve started to live my life more focused on myself,” says Ha-Na, while Se-Young’s decision not to marry was influenced by seeing how her mother and grandmother have been treated as “subordinates” in her family. Protests take place online and in cities across the country. A 2018 women’s rights rally in Seoul lasted 33 hours as one woman after another took to the stage to relate their experiences of gender abuse.
The West often views South Korea through a candy-coloured lens. It’s a country built on dignity, respect, smiling K-pop bands and innovative technology. One that’s certainly more liberal than its Northern neighbour. Yet South Korea has a long record of female subjugation.
During the 1950-53 Korean War, soldiers made women walk over roads they thought might contain landmines to check for safety. Between 1953 and 2021, abortion was illegal in most circumstances. A 2015 South Korean government study revealed that almost 80% of women had been sexually harassed at work. Digital crime, including stalking and sexual harassment, such as molka – the act of upskirting and secretly filming women in bathrooms – is rife. Under current legislation, men accused of stalking can ask their victims to drop charges. Last year, a man murdered his former colleague after she refused to do so.
The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Index ranks South Korea at number 99 out of 146 countries for gender equality. A January 2023 article in South Korean newspaper The Sisa Times reported that 65% of women in the country do not want children. Some 42% do not want to get married, with over 80% of those citing domestic violence as their key reason.
The country’s incumbent (male) president Yoon Suk-Yeol has promised to close down the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family that supports women and victims of sexual assault, claiming it treats men like “potential sex criminals”. Last November, local media reported that Suk-Yeol’s government had removed the terms ‘gender equality’ and ‘sexual minorities’ from school textbooks.
In her new book, Flowers Of Fire, South Korean journalist Hawon Jung looks at the recent development of feminist movements. When I ask her what she thinks 4B might achieve, Jung points to a quote in her book from Lee Na-Young, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University. “The patriarchal norms in South Korea, given its economic status and the educational level of its women, are so relentless that the resistance against it tends to be just as intense,” Na-Young says. “Movements like 4B are a message of warning that women would boycott romantic relationships unless society and men change.”
Simon Coates is a London-based writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications including The New European and Scottish newspaper The National