As in many countries historically, Korea experienced a push in feminist thought during industrialization and war times as women were called into the workforce and gained more access to education. While this general phenomenon might be similar across many industrially developed nations, the specific cultural and historical contingencies that shaped the feminist movement in Korea are worth noting. With incoming influence from the West, and societal pressures from imperial Japan, the idea of a modern woman at the onset of feminist thought in the 20s was quite a controversial and nuanced picture. Despite decades of cultural and political transitions, certain tropes and habits that belonged to the ‘new women’ or ‘new girls’ of the colonial period in Korea have persisted in current South Korean media, especially pertaining to K-Pop girl groups and KDramas. The persistence of “sister love” relationships, and affinities for European fashion, are some such tropes that have stuck with South Korea’s notion of an ideal, modern girl and the application of these concepts to K-Pop girl groups and dramas creates an interesting case study on the historical contingencies of modern feminism across the globe.
Korea’s women’s liberation movement mirrored those of other developed or developing nations in the 1920s. New ideals for women were argued and no longer was the traditional, domestic woman in favor. The “new woman”, or sin yeoja, was young, educated, and modern. She aspired to education for a national purpose, wore modern European garb, and acted as a proper lady. These notions of the new women for Korea were slightly different from those of the American Rosie the Riveter due to the strong sense of nationalism underlining the nation at the time due to Japanese influence. In addition to the nationalism resulting from Japanese pressure, Korea was also under pressure from Russia, the United States, China, and various other nations. Thus, there was an internal national sentiment about self-strengthening the nation to be on par with the world leaders. This is evident throughout much discussion and debate on the status of women during the pre-war, colonial era. One source, from a Korean woman named Im Chinsil written in 1926, states, “If we do not improve the lower-than-zero status of women, there will be no true happiness in human society.” This signifies the imperative of improving the status of women to improve society overall. Additionally, an editorial from Sin Yeoja, a magazine focusing on women’s lib, reads in 1920, “We publish our magazine, [Sin Yeoja], with the sole purpose of working in society, gaining emancipation, and finding ways in which we can help build a social order than is the envy of the world.”
Of course, there was certainly pushback from those supporting the traditional role of women, however women in Korea evidently enjoyed a short period of freedoms and hopes for an elevated status. One such hallmark of this period is the cultural phenomenon of same-sex relationships for women and girls in their adolescent education. These relationships, called “sister love”, have been contested by different realms of historians. Many memoirs of these relationships describe them as pockets of liberation for women to share their new modern and Western interests, some describe them as true love, and others state that they were simply a normal part of maturation and only preparation for their future heterosexual marriage. Regardless of which historical perspective of this time and phenomenon was true, “sister love” relationships are a unique trait of Korean feminism that has persisted in Korean culture to the contemporary.
Unfortunately, despite the huge leaps in progress women experienced during this time, Japanese colonialism during wartime devastated the Korean peninsula and had consequential effects on the status of women. While being forced to assimilate to Japanese society and adopt Japanese identities, the Korean population felt the need to maintain their traditional values. This resulted in a backwards slide towards the traditional, Confucian ideals for women. This, accompanied by the atrocities experienced by comfort women and other forced labor, dropped the status of women significantly. Many memoirs from middle aged and older women during the war period in Korea recount their youth as a paradise lost. Because of this, many facets of women’s liberation that existed in the 1920s in Korea are visible in the contemporary, and particularly in KPop. Kpop is a tenant of modern Korean pop culture, thus analyzing themes in songs and music videos can reveal underlying societal values. One theme that is evident in KPop girl groups is the idea of “sister love”. Music videos such as “Wish Tree” by girl group, Red Velvet, “Cry to Your Heart’s Content” by Sweet Revenge, and “Obvious Story” by Maman portray close and hinted, yet not explicitly romantic or sexual relationships between young girls. These girls are seen eating pastries together, sharing clothes and makeup, and listening to music together. These music videos perfectly portray South Korea’s account of “sister relationships” as slightly ambiguous, very close female friendships that are breeding grounds for expressiveness of female interests and modern culture. Additionally, many Korean dramas portray this type of relationship such as “Hello, My Twenties!” in which young women live codependently with each other, helping each other with emotional issues and experiencing bonds closer than purely platonic friendships.
There is an interesting continuation from the early women’s lib movement in Korea to modern day South Korean pop culture. Following the trajectory of history, one can see how historical contingencies and events shaped Korean feminism in unique ways, what was lost, and what stuck. “Sister love” relationships are a perfect example of something so prevalent in early Korean feminism that has lasted throughout the years to the point where it is an unspoken, unthought of fact of Korean pop culture. Despite this narrative, feminism in Korea has pressing implications and is much more nuanced given recent events concerning the suicide of a young streamer who was harassed online for being a feminist, and the many political battles concerning feminism. Thus, it is important to delve deeper into the larger history concerning Korean nationalism, feminism, and modern culture to get the full picture.
1. Shin-ae Ha, “Femininity under the Wartime System and the Symptomacity of Female Same-Sex Love,” in Queer Korea (2020), 146-169
2. Choi, "New Woman, Old Woman," in New Women in Colonial Korea: A Sourcebook, 26-46