Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea’s Feminist Movement and What It Means for Women’s Rights Worldwide
- By Hawon Jung
- BenBella Books
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- April 6, 2023
Meet fearless activists demanding change.
As South Korea has emerged from the ruins of a civil war to become a fully industrialized nation with one of the world’s largest economies, its deeply patriarchal society is struggling to adjust to the repercussions of global success. While women and girls provided cheap labor for the factories that pulled the nation out of poverty, their contributions have never been recognized; neither has a generation of “comfort women” been offered restitution for bringing in much-needed cash in the desperately poor postwar era, when the South Korean government collaborated with the U.S. military to keep prostitution thriving for American troops.
Today, women in South Korea do the majority of the housework and child-rearing, pushed out of their careers as soon as they start a family. As Hawon Jung writes in her comprehensive history of South Korea’s feminist movement, Flowers of Fire, “women were expected to provide ‘lifelong service care’ for their spouses, children, parents-in-law, or anyone vulnerable in their extended family, shouldering the burden of social services largely abandoned by the government.”
Entrenched in the culture, misogyny in contemporary South Korea has mutated into bizarre manifestations that include rampant filming of unsuspecting women by spycams, even in the safety of their own homes; men who bond online over shared spycam or otherwise coerced footage of women; and a men’s rights movement that is alarmingly popular with young males.
Jung packs her narrative with appalling statistics, including:
- “South Korea is the world’s tenth largest economy…the World Economic Forum places South Korea at number 102 out of 156 countries in terms of gender parity.”
- “According to a survey ordered by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2017, nearly 30 percent of high school students complained of sexual harassment by teachers at school, including unwanted groping, touching, or sexual taunts.”
- “[Eleven] percent of South Korean men use condoms during sex, one of the lowest percentages in the industrialized world…suggesting that the country’s ‘patriarchal family culture’ regards birth control as a woman’s responsibility.”
- In 1978, “doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions per every live birth — one of the highest rates of abortion ever recorded in the world.”
- “Nearly 90 percent of all victims of violent crimes are women…Human Rights Watch, a global rights watchdog, noted in 2019 that gender-based violence in the country is ‘shockingly widespread.’”
Indeed, in a country where the phrase “every three days” — as in, a man should beat his wife every three days whether she deserves it or not — is part of the daily lexicon, the women on the vanguard of the South Korean feminist movement are true profiles in courage. Seo Ji-Hyun, for one, was a senior prosecutor when she went public with her experience of being sexually assaulted by the justice ministry’s policy-planning director-general, sparking South Korea’s #MeToo movement. Despite relentless public harassment, she persevered with her case, and though she lost in court, she put the issue front and center in the news. Another is Byun Hui-Su, who publicly outed herself as transgender to protest her dismissal from the military after her gender-affirming surgery.
Galvanizing events, such as the murder of a woman by an incel at the Gangnam subway station and the suicide of a K-pop star mercilessly bullied after being suspected of being a feminist, along with the prevalence of digital sex crimes (including deepfake porn and the filming of drugged women being gang raped), have compelled women to take action.
Victims of gender-based crimes have, among other actions, successfully pushed to change laws; created organizations, hotlines, and seminars to help other victims; organized mass protests; and fought their abusers in court despite systemic male bias. Protesting gender inequality in more prosaic ways, women have also joined the “Escape the Corset” movement, forgoing the hours-long daily beauty regimens expected of Korean women; become “no-marriage women,” pledging to stay single and childless; and created community in a sisterhood of other unmarried women.
Not surprisingly, such activism has produced a backlash among men, particularly the younger generation. The men’s rights movement helped propel South Korea’s current president, Yoon Suk Yeol, into office after he pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and strengthen penalties for false accusations of sex crimes. The enthusiastic support for Yoon by men in their 20s and 30s indicates misogyny has not loosened its iron grip on Korea; it’s tightened it.
Accessibly written in short chapters, Flowers of Fire seamlessly disseminates statistics, research, interviews, and expert opinions amid the personal stories of the brave women of South Korea’s feminist movement. Divided into four parts, the book explores the incidents that spawned the modern-day feminist movement, the history of South Korean feminism, grassroots campaigns, and contemporary activism. Though timelines and individual activists can overlap from section to section, the author deftly portrays not just a movement, but a country, making for absorbing reading for South Korean experts and novices alike.
Whether part of a movement or not, South Korean women today are protesting with their uteruses, making South Korea the country with the world’s lowest birthrate. South Korean men would do well to read Flowers of Fire and chart a new course toward gender equity or else see their nation decline as quickly as it ascended.
Born to a Korean mother and an American-soldier father, Alice Stephens was one of the many mixed-race Koreans adopted out of the country. She is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.