Park’s policies were part of a larger US-led campaign to control population growth across the developing world. In the 1960s, while abortion remained inaccessible for many American women, figures like John D. Rockefeller III and institutions like the Ford Foundation encouraged American allies from Japan to India to aggressively limit their population growth, often using foreign aid as an incentive. Abortion in South Korea remained technically illegal, except in cases of rape, incest, genetic disability in the fetus, or threat to the mother’s health. But statistics show that this law was rarely enforced: by 1978, Seoul had one of the highest abortion rates ever recorded, 2.75 per live birth.
Hawon Jung outlines this history in her new book about South Korean feminism, Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea’s Feminist Movement and What It Means for Women’s Rights Worldwide. Jung is a journalist, and much of the book consists of contemporary reportage. But Flowers of Fire supplements this coverage with substantial historical research—research that illuminates how both sexism and the fight against it in South Korea are rooted in historical particularities.
This historical research is also helpful in showing what different feminist movements can learn from one another. International solidarity, we can see from Jung’s work, offers more than just strength in numbers; it also provides opportunities for comparative analysis. By considering the history of access to reproductive care in South Korea, for example, Flowers of Fire reveals the instability of frameworks that American readers may consider inherent to debates around abortion and birth control.
Abortion in the United States is often framed in terms of progressive versus conservative, “pro-choice” versus “pro-life,” secular versus religious. Flowers of Fire shows that these dichotomies are neither stable nor innate. Park, the architect of South Korea’s population-control policies, was a conservative authoritarian. Though he was a Buddhist, his policies had the backing of Christian, anti-communist evangelical megachurches. These churches worried that out-of-control population growth would exacerbate poverty, in turn making communism more appealing. To this day, Park remains a beloved figure among many of South Korea’s most conservative people.
In a country where 14 states and counting have passed near-total abortion bans, reproductive healthcare may seem the sole purview of liberal feminists. But in late-20th-century South Korea, this was not the case. While contraceptives improved the quality of life of many South Korean women, the population-control campaign was also characterized by coercion and cutting corners. Jung includes testimony from a woman who says that she and others in her poor neighborhood were pressured by medical professionals to receive IUDs and tubal ligations to show their “patriotism.” South Korean women often received IUD models that had yet to be formally approved and introduced in the United States. Abortion, too, was often not a free choice but one compelled by societal pressures: women with disabilities were coerced to terminate their pregnancies, and sex-selective abortions in favor of boys were rampant throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
It was only in the 21st century, in response to the country’s rapidly declining birth rate, that the abortion debate in South Korea took on the contours of that in the United States. In 2009, South Korea’s birth rate had reached 1.1, one of the lowest in the world. In response, the government took steps to enforce the country’s laws against abortion more strictly. Now, South Korean conservatives began to take pages from the American playbook: evangelical churches launched anti-abortion campaigns, and some doctors began to identify as pro-life and file complaints against clinics that performed abortions.
In South Korea, American-style claims of religious devotion and concern for the fetus were used to mask the reality that women’s bodies were, as Jung writes, a “water valve to turn on or off depending on the needs of the nation.” This history, then, challenges American readers to ask: what are those same claims obscuring in our own country?
Aviva Wei Xue and Kate Rose’s Weibo Feminism: Expression, Activism, and Social Media in China, published last year, is another recent book that prioritizes global and historical context—this time, in its analysis of contemporary Chinese feminism. As in South Korea, feminists in China draw inspiration from global women’s rights movements in the pursuit of what the authors call a “true transnationality.” And again, this transnationality offers more than just solidarity—it also allows us to see more clearly how ideology gilds reality, and how to begin to pick away at that gilding.
Access to reproductive care in China has always been “hijacked by national will,” the authors of Weibo Feminism argue. At the same time that Korean state-run clinics were promoting—and sometimes coercing women into—abortions and birth control, China enforced its one-child policy from 1979 to 2015. While South Korea tried to legally restrict abortion in the 21st century to boost the birth rate, China implemented its “three-child policy” in an attempt to do the same.
In Weibo Feminism, Xue and Rose examine how Westerners’ biases affect the way they view women’s rights in China. Xue and Rose argue, for example, that the Western media’s fixation on the one-child policy—especially when compared with its silence on Chinese women’s reproductive rights before and after—shows how reproductive rights are only a concern when “nationalism and patriarchy clash.” But when the interests of the nation align with those of patriarchy—when the nation is encouraging childbirth—such concern evaporates.
Comparing the histories of South Korea and China, we can go a step further and ask: why was the West so concerned with the horrors of the one-child policy when Western institutions like the Ford Foundation were helping to drive South Korea’s abortion rate to one of the highest in the world? Of course, there are differences in scale: South Korea is a smaller country, and South Korean women retained greater autonomy than women in China did. But we can see again how ideology obscures reality. Coerced abortion and birth control were seen as evil when used to spur the economic growth of communist China; when the same things were used to prevent the spread of communism in South Korea, they were necessary, even noble.
If looking to global feminist movements can help readers see that the frameworks of American feminism are not inherent, perhaps it can also help us see a way forward from the position American feminism is in today. Many feel a growing dissatisfaction with a type of feminism that prizes personal choice and pleasure above all else—what Xue and Rose call “Western liberal feminism” that “obscures many issues with a postmodern rhetoric of choice.” This frustration has manifested in various ways—from anti-feminism that blurs the lines between irony and sincerity to critiques of sex positivity that begin to bend backward toward conservatism.
Weibo Feminism and Flowers of Fire show us that there are other alternatives. In South Korea, for example, where memory of the population-control campaign is still fresh—women who were forced to receive IUDs in the 1970s criticized the government’s hypocrisy at 2010s abortion rallies—reproductive healthcare activism is not only about securing the choice to have an abortion. Another important part of the reproductive rights movement is activism to provide support for those whose pregnancies fall outside social norms—in particular, unwed mothers, 90 percent of whom lose or give up their jobs soon after childbirth.
In response to the low birth rate, the South Korean government continues to throw money at incentivizing births that take place within acceptable social frameworks—that is to say, within heterosexual marriages, the only type of marriage legal in South Korea. But feminists continue to ask the questions raised by lawyer Kim Soo-jung, who argued in front of the Constitutional Court for the decriminalization of abortion in 2018 (as cited by Jung): “What about the government? Did it make the discrimination against unwed mothers disappear? Did it offer proper funding to allow unwed mothers to raise their children? Did it create the social climate where pregnant women and mothers can continue to study or work?”
In China too, the choice of whether to carry a pregnancy to term, especially as a single mother, is not one free of external pressures. Unlike married women, unmarried women in China must pay all medical expenses related to pregnancy, and they cannot access paid maternity leave with guaranteed job retention. Single mothers must sometimes pay a fine to declare a birth—though some provinces, driven by anxiety over the falling birth rate, are starting to do away with such policies.
Xue and Rose argue that Chinese feminists’ alternative to liberal choice feminism is not an attempt at structural reform but instead a kind of radical individualism to enact change from the bottom up. The authors argue that Weibo feminists (a term they use interchangeably with Chinese feminists) have “given up on reformation.” Instead, they encourage women to use their individual “bodies and personal lives” to challenge inequality: “[T]heir personal choices widen the crevices of patriarchal constructs, shaking their foundations.” Key to the movement is its scattered, decentralized nature, with many ideas disseminated on the social media platform Weibo. Without centralized leadership, the movement is impossible for the government to fully censor.
This kind of decentralized, individual feminism is different from Western choice feminism, which centers a woman’s right to do as she pleases. Weibo feminism, as the authors theorize it, uses individuals’ collective choices to challenge and ultimately dismantle patriarchal structures. In the case of reproductive rights, the recent memory of the one-child policy underscores that fighting for the choice to have an abortion is not enough. As a result, Chinese feminists fight not only for the right to freely access abortions, Xue and Rose write, but also to have children on their own terms through “individual acts of refusing marriage and Confucian filial doctrines.”
The authors offer the fight against surrogacy in China as an example of this movement. In the United States, surrogacy is framed as a women’s choice issue, a prime example, the authors argue, of Western choice feminism gone awry: “In the context of patriarchal control, free will does not exist with regard to renting out one’s womb.” Many Chinese feminists worry that the legalization of surrogacy will inevitably lead to the exploitation of poor women, as a free market will cater to “demand of the upper classes to have offspring, especially sons, more conveniently.” Though the government has made attempts to move toward the legalization of surrogacy, it has been unsuccessful, largely thanks to feminist activism.
If anti-surrogacy is an example of the negative form of Weibo feminism, the positive form exists as what Weibo feminists call “womb morality.” Presented as an alternative to patriarchal morality, womb morality is a concept that insists on the rightness of several ideas: that women can have children regardless of marital status; that women should pass their surnames on to their children; and, most controversially, that women should select fathers for their children based on desirable characteristics, and owe no relationship or commitment to these men.
The authors of Weibo Feminism note that the last concept is “somewhat satirical,” and they mention criticisms of the eugenic implications of selecting “desirable” traits for offspring. But rather than truly address these criticisms, the authors deny their validity. They respond to the claim of eugenics, for example, by saying that men who are not selected have no right to offspring, but the authors do not grapple with how conceptions of desirability themselves are shaped by patriarchy or other societal forces.
Weibo Feminism’s more radical arguments, including its unqualified defense of womb morality and its hard line against surrogacy, are reminiscent of American radical feminist movements of the 1970s. Indeed, the authors claim that contemporary Western choice feminism has undone the progress of “second-wave feminists,” and they present Weibo feminism as a “contemporary version of 1970s women’s movements with both Chinese and global characteristics.”
But Chinese feminism is more than just an updated version of 1970s women’s movements—and critiques of concepts like womb morality, which come not from the West but often from other Chinese women, can help to illuminate the ways that Chinese feminism is distinct. In particular, the scattered, decentralized nature of the movement—and its emphasis on the radical power of individual choices—makes the movement unique.
The South Korean feminist movement also includes sects that focus on the power of individual choice. In Flowers of Fire, Jung reports on groups of women who opt out of patriarchal institutions rather than try to reform them. Some women refuse to get married or give birth, participating in what they call “birth strikes” and “marriage strikes.” Others are part of the more explicitly political “4B” or “four Nos” movement, which consists of “no dating, no sex, no marriage, and no child-rearing.”
Another similar movement is the “Escape the Corset” campaign, which emerged on social media in 2018. Using the hashtag #escapethecorset, women posted photos of discarded makeup, chopped-off hair, and other rejections of symbolic “corsets,” such as plastic surgery, high heels, dieting, and feminine clothing. There was a subsequent debate about whether the movement shamed or excluded women who “chose” to beautify. Some asked, What if a woman truly enjoys wearing lipstick and dresses? Is she excluded from this movement?
During the Summer Olympics held in Tokyo in 2021, South Korean archery star An San appeared on TV screens across the country with close-cropped hair. She did not make any sort of feminist or political statement, but she soon faced a stream of online abuse from men who called her a “man hater” and demanded an apology; some went so far as to pressure the Korean Archery Association to revoke her gold medals.
Such vitriol directed at a woman for not conforming to beauty standards proved, yet again, that there is no such thing as a choice free from societal pressure and ramifications. An was not trying to make a political statement, but because she, like all of us, exists in a setting shaped by history and politics, her decision was inevitably political. This is also true, then, of a woman’s choice to conform to beauty standards.
But what if, rather than lament that our choices are so loaded with political significance, we used this fact to our advantage? If one woman’s decision to wear short hair to the Olympics could release a torrent of online abuse, what is the power of 10, 100, or 1,000 women’s similar choices? In response to the online hate, women in South Korea began to post photos of their own short haircuts online, using the tag #women_shortcut_campaign. By the time An scored her final victory, the incident was in international headlines for what it exposed about sexism in South Korea—as well as for the swell of support that An received.
Feminist movements in both South Korea and China acknowledge that compelled “choices” are not true choices at all. Getting to the root of this issue would require a radical restructuring of society: changing legislation that discriminates against single mothers, for example, or eliminating unconscious biases that view a lack of makeup as unprofessional in women but not in men. But many of these changes are not possible in the near future, some not in our lifetimes. As we try to move toward them, what can we do in the meantime?
Seemingly paradoxically, Weibo Feminism and Flowers of Fire show us that we can use our choices. Rather than use shame to disincentivize women from making the “wrong” choice, feminists in South Korea and China are doing grassroots work to make revolutionary choices possible not just in theory, but in practice—whether that’s South Korean women organizing classes for single women on skills that are traditionally only passed down to men, such as home improvement, or Chinese feminists posting advice online about how young women can remain independent outside of marriage by earning and investing money. By making such choices truly possible, we can start to chip away at what Xue and Rose call “patriarchal constructs.” And historical and global perspectives can help us to see how those constructs are just that—constructed, and thus neither immutable nor permanent, with foundations that can be uprooted.
Perhaps, through such activism, we can move toward a world where choices are truly free. Whether or not we are near such a future, both books make a case for the importance of looking to one another in this work—not just for some romantic notion of feminist solidarity, but so we can see how the structures that we are told are permanent are, in fact, not; so we can see how my choices affect you, and your choices affect me, and that does not have to be a bad thing; so we can make a wider range of choices possible not only in theory but also in practice.
Nina Pasquini is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared on the BBC, as well as in Harvard Magazine, In These Times, and elsewhere.