The Hidden Roots of Korea’s Gender Wars

Universal male conscription and rampant discrimination against working mothers will always grab headlines, but a recent ruling against segregated seating in study rooms is a stark reminder of the pervasive homosociality behind the friction

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

After university, Korean men and women have fewer friendships with each other than their counterparts in English-speaking countries do. At least, that’s my own personal experience, and I’d wager good money most of yours too.

Under-30s especially though, will make me want to hold on to my wallet. Koreans that age have known nothing but rapidly declining marriage and birth rates, a staggering rise in the number of single households, and ongoing economic precarity. In their wake, lifestyles and social norms that were centered around marriage and male breadwinner systems are undergoing a paradigm shift.

But change is never easy, nor universally welcomed. In particular, Korea’s ‘gender wars‘ are one troubling symptom of the transistion process. One of their main catalysts, misplaced anger over mandatory military service for men, will continue to buttress homosociality, by disrupting male university student’s relationships with female students who remain, as well as by subtly enabling male, age-based privilege when those men return, and by providing them with old-boy networks they will rely on for the rest of their lives. Not unrelated, long working hours for both sexes and a second shift of domestic and family responsibilities for women reinforce the notion of separate spheres.

17-Year-Old Tzuyu: “A Special Gift for Korean Men [who’ve completed military service].”

Yet these are only the broad swathes of the many roots of the phenomenon. Not so headline-grabbing, but no less impactful for all that, is that most Korean schools are single sex, with only a third of high schools in Seoul being coeducational for instance. Indeed, many schools prevent students from dating or even socializing with the opposite sex too.

A task in which they may have long been aided, it turns out, by a law requiring “study rooms” (독서실) to be segregated by sex, under the eye-rolling rationale that mixing them together is more likely to lead to sex crimes. (And a belief which is still taught in sex-education classes today.) As YTN just reported on Valentine’s Day however, this requirement has now been ruled unconstitutional:

I’ll translate the report in a moment below. But first, study rooms, for those unfamiliar, are like libraries where all the bookshelves have been replaced by rows of separate cubicles. Designed to be equally quiet, and with the sole purpose of studying, I’ve also been told by a friend that they were where teenagers especially “told their parents they were going when they were actually going on dates, since you were expected to be incommunicado while you’re there.” They’re also much cheaper and have been around much longer than “study cafes” (스터디카폐), which range much more widely in price and quality but in which you either have tables and desks to work at and/or can hire a separate room where noise is not a problem, and will likely have a range of snacks, coffees, and soft drinks available to purchase. For obvious reasons, both study rooms and cafes are primarily associated with school and university students, but they’re also commonly used by older adults, especially the half a million Koreans studying for civil service exams at any one time—which just goes to show how ubiquitous and common a part of daily life they are in Korea.

Unfortunately and finally, the report is frustratingly vague. Among the many obvious questions it doesn’t provide an answer to are: if the original law (or 1995 amendment?) covered all private educational intuitions, or if it only applied to study rooms and why; if it had been enforced at all before 2017 or if that was in fact the first and last time; why only 16 regional educational boards (out of how many?) incorporated it into their own ordinances; why the Jeonju Office of Education suddenly decided to enforce it; and so on. If any readers can help fill in any these blanks, I would be very grateful!

“This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.”

주변에서 쉽게 볼 수 있는 스터디카페입니다.

남녀 자리를 구분하지 않고, 자유로운 착석이 가능합니다.

공공도서관, 공동주택 열람실도 마찬가지입니다.

하지만 독서실은 다릅니다.

남녀가 한 공간에 섞여서 앉아 있을 경우 행정처분을 받습니다.

This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.

You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.

The same is true for public libraries and community reading rooms in apartment complexes.

But study rooms are different.

If men and women sit together in them, the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.

“You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.”

근거는 지난 1995년에 개정된 학원법 시행령입니다.

성별에 따라 좌석을 구분해야 한다고 규정했고, 이 조항 등을 기초로 16개 시·도 교육청은 조례에 남녀 좌석구분을 못 박았습니다.

지난 2017년 12월 이 조례를 근거로 전주교육지원청은 한 독서실 업체에 열흘간 운영정지처분을 내렸습니다.

현장점검결과 열람실 내 성별 좌석 구분 배열이 준수돼 있지 않고, 한 공간에 남녀가 섞여 앉아 있었다는 겁니다.

이에 대해 독서실 측은 해당 조례가 직업수행의 자유를 침해하는 위헌적 규정이므로, 행정처분 역시 무효라고 주장하며 소송을 냈습니다.

This is due to the Education Academy Act, which was amended in 1995. [But the broadness of the Act is not given, nor why it was only being enforced in study rooms—James.]

It stipulates that seats should be divided according to sex. Based on this provision, 16 metropolitan and provincial offices of education have incorporated it into their own ordinances.

On this basis, in December 2017 the Jeonju Office of Education ordered a study room to suspend operation for ten days.

As a result of an on-site inspection, it had found that men and women were sitting together.

In response, the study room filed a lawsuit arguing that the sexual segregation requirement was invalid, as it infringed upon the constitutional right to freedom to practice one’s profession.

“[However], if men and women sit together in [study rooms], the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.”

1심과 2심이 엇갈리는 치열한 법리 다툼 끝에 대법원은 독서실 혼석 금지 조례는 위헌이라고 결론지었습니다.

재판부는 헌법에서 보장하는 직업수행의 자유와 독서실 이용자의 행동 자유권을 지자체가 조례를 통해 과도하게 침범했다고 지적했습니다.

이어, 혼석을 금지해 성범죄를 예방한다는 입법 목적도 남녀가 한 공간에 있으면 성범죄 발생 가능성이 커진다는 불합리한 인식에 기초한 것이므로 정당성을 인정하기 어렵다고 설명했습니다.

대법원이 전북도 조례에 대해 위헌 결정을 내린 만큼 지난 2017년 먼저 관련 조례를 삭제한 충청남도를 제외한 나머지 15개 지자체는 조례개정이 불가피할 전망입니다.

YTN 김우준입니다.

After a fierce legal battle that went to a second trial, the Supreme Court agreed that the sexual segregation requirement was unconstitutional.

The Court pointed out that through the ordinance, the local governments excessively violated the freedom of occupation guaranteed by the Constitution and the freedom of action of users of the study room.

The Court further explained that the original purpose of the ordinance, to prevent sex crimes by reducing the opportunities for men and women to mix, was irrational and could not be used as justification to continue it.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling that ruled that sexual segregation was unconstitutional, the remaining 15 metropolitan and provincial offices of education that incorporated the provision will be forced to revise it. One of the original 16 offices, that of Chungcheongnam-do, already removed the relevant ordinance in 2017.

Kim Woo-jun from YTN reporting. (End.)

Update:

An excellent article by Choi Jae-hee from The Korea Herald entitled “From study cafes to ride-sharing, Koreans seem to prefer same-sex environments. Why?” helped fill in some of those blanks. Specifically (but I highly recommend reading it in full):

[The Supreme Court’s] judgement was in favor of a local operator of a private reading room facility who was slapped with a 10-day business suspension from a local educational authority for breaking a gender segregation rule set by the North Jeolla Province’s education office.

The rule in question is the article 3 of the “Ordinance on the Establishment and Operation of Private Educational Institutes,” which stipulates that seats in studying spaces at private educational facilities should be divided by gender. It was introduced in 2009 largely to deter sex crimes and ensure a better study environment, officials said.

Unlike study cafes, which are categorized as a space leasing businesses or a restaurant/rest area business, reading rooms are regarded as private academies and thus are subject to the ordinance.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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