South Korea politician blames women for rising male suicides

A phone to call for help on a bridge in South Korea
Councillor Kim made his assessment after analysing data on suicide attempts at bridges along Seoul's Han river [Getty Images]

A politician in South Korea is being criticised for making dangerous and unsubstantiated comments after linking a rise in male suicides to the increasingly “dominant” role of women in society.

In a report, Seoul City councillor Kim Ki-duck argued women’s increased participation in the workforce over the years had made it harder for men to get jobs and to find women who wanted to marry them.

He said the country had recently “begun to change into a female-dominant society” and that this might "partly be responsible for an increase in male suicide attempts”.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among the world’s rich countries but also has one of the worst records on gender equality.

Councillor Kim’s comments have been criticised as the latest in a series of out-of-touch remarks made by male politicians.

Councillor Kim, from the Democratic Party, arrived at his assessment when analysing data on the number of suicide attempts made at bridges along Seoul’s Han river.

The report, published on the city council’s official website, showed that the number of suicide attempts along the river had risen from 430 in 2018 to 1,035 in 2023, and of those trying to take their lives the proportion who were men had climbed from 67% to 77%.

Suicide prevention experts have expressed concern over Mr Kim’s report.

“It is dangerous and unwise to make claims like this without sufficient evidence,” Song In Han, a mental health professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the BBC.

He pointed out that globally more men took their lives than women. In many countries, including the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.

Even so, Prof Song said the reasons behind the sharp rise in men attempting suicide in Seoul needed to be scientifically studied, adding it was “very regrettable” that the councillor had made it about gender conflict.

In South Korea there is a substantial gulf between the number of men and women in full-time employment, with women disproportionately working temporary or part-time jobs. The gender pay gap is slowly narrowing, but still women are paid on average 29% less than men.

In recent years an anti-feminist movement has surged, led by disillusioned young men, who argue they have been disadvantaged by attempts to improve women’s lives.

Appearing to echo such views, Councillor Kim’s report concluded that the way to overcome “the female-domination phenomenon” was to improve people’s awareness of gender equality so that “men and women can enjoy equal opportunities”.

Koreans took to the social media platform X to denounce the councillor’s remarks as “unsubstantiated” and “misogynistic”, with one user questioning whether they were living in a parallel universe.

The Justice Party accused the councillor of “easily shifting the blame to women in Korean society who are struggling to escape gender discrimination". It has called on him to retract his remarks and instead “properly analyse” the causes of the problem.

When approached for comment by the BBC, Councillor Kim said he had “not intended to be critical of the female-dominated society”, and was merely giving his personal view about some of its consequences.

However, his comments follow a number of unscientific and sometimes bizarre political proposals aimed at tackling some of South Korea’s most pressing social issues, including mental illness, gender violence and the lowest birth rate in the world.

Last month, another Seoul councillor in his 60s published a series of articles on the authority’s website encouraging young women to take up gymnastics and practise pelvic floor exercises in order to raise the birth rate.

At the same time, a government think tank recommended that girls start school earlier than boys, so that classmates would be more attracted to each other by the time they were ready to marry.

“Such comments encapsulate just how pervasive misogyny is in South Korea,” said Yuri Kim, director of the Korean Women's Trade Union. She accused politicians and policymakers of not even trying to understand the challenges women faced, preferring to scapegoat them instead.

“Blaming women for entering the workforce will only prolong the imbalances in our society,” she told the BBC.

Currently women account for 20% of South Korea’s members of parliament, and 29% of all local councillors.

Seoul City Council told the BBC there was no process in place to vet what politicians published on its official website unless the content was illegal. It said individuals were solely responsible for their content and would face any consequences at the next election.

Additional reporting by Hosu Lee and Leehyun Choi

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