Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

We can all learn from South Korea’s 4B movement

By ISABELLA MADRUGA | April 25, 2024


While the patriarchy is certainly still strong in Western countries like the U.S., it is a different beast in South Korea. Among all countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea is at the bottom in gender income disparity rankings, with a whopping 31% difference in pay between men and women, despite its high GDP and standing as a developed country. 

Additionally, there has been a strong wave of anti-feminist movements across the country, boosted by the election of the conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol. Yoon claimed that structural gender discrimination no longer exists and promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. However, according to a 2021 survey, 1 in 3 Korean women have experienced some sort of gender-based violence, and their perpetrators were most likely current or former romantic partners, with most of these cases going unpunished or unresolved

In 2023, a woman was killed in a Seoul subway bathroom, prompting new waves of organizing. The perpetrator, who stalked his victim by calling her over 300 times and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t date him, was deemed too “low-risk” by police to be detained.

Enter the 4B movement, a movement about decentering men that should be implemented in every country in the world. 

Bihon, bichulsan, biyeonae, bisekseu: no marriage, childbirth, romance or sex with men. It is so simple and nonviolent that one may wonder why this wasn’t a popular movement earlier. Yet, it has sent men into a tizzy, with President Yoon blaming feminist movements for South Korea’s low birth rate — the lowest in the world — rather than looking into the root reason why: men. Women no longer need to deal with abuse or the fear of it when breaking up with men if they never get into a relationship in the first place. They no longer feel the need to have children or have sex due to societal and male pressure once they decenter men in their lives. 

The 4B movement isn’t organized or centralized — it has no leader, no official website and no physical building to go to. Nobody knows how many women are followers of the 4B movement, because it’s so silent. It is the ultimate protest against men and the patriarchal system, showing men that it is men who need women to live, not the other way around. Women who take it even further may cut off friendships with women who only talk about makeup, clothes and boys, distance themselves from their male friends and buzz their hair off, but that’s the beauty of the movement: One can go as far as she deems necessary in completely decentering men and focusing on her personal growth. 

My sociology class recently discussed this topic, and one person raised the question, “Why don’t we just try to bridge the gap between men and women? Why should we continue to fuel the gender war?” My answer was simple: There is no gender war. Women are generally not pursuing the war-like tactics the way men are. Men are psychologically and physically torturing women who dare to oppose them. 

Women’s dislike (and sometimes hatred) of men stems from fear, as men are much more likely to commit intimate partner violence. Men’s dislike (and a lot of the time, hatred) of women stems from insecurity and rejection, the belief that they are better than women and the need to control them. They retaliate with murder, rape and violence — with sexual assault being used as a weapon of war. That’s the real gender war. 

As for bridging the gap between men and women, women have been trying to “bridge the gap” — a gap created by men. Through educating men, doing emotional labor to get them to understand and giving them resources to educate themselves, women have been trying tirelessly to get men to understand their side. Men don’t want to, so South Korean women have decided it’s easier to live their lives alone rather than trying to get men to listen to them. 

The 4B movement is a movement that should be implemented anywhere where it’s needed and possible to execute. One of the most effective women’s movements was the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike, where women just walked out of their homes and workplaces onto the street, leaving their husbands to tend to everything. Obviously, men and companies caved under all the work women do, oftentimes invisibly. This one day has had a lasting effect on how gender equity has been implemented and maintained in Iceland, leading the country to be ranked the most gender-equal country in the world 14 years in a row

This method is unrealistic nowadays considering population numbers, but its spirit is there in the 4B movement. Both movements are about prioritizing oneself, breaking away from gender roles and being wholly independent of every man — and everyone, for that matter — in one’s life. 

The 4B movement is far from perfect. The obligatory “not all men” statement rings true here. Further, some feminists have equated stereotypically feminine items, such as makeup and clothing, as anti-feminist, which may shame women who are genuinely interested in these things. But the beauty of the movement is that it is not mandatory, and a woman can take it as liberally or conservatively as she might want. 

This overall message should be implemented around the world: Women should not need men to function, and they should decenter men from their lives. They should lead happy, fulfilling lives without the need for a man — if one happens to be in it, then great. In the wise words of Cher, “A man is not a necessity, but a luxury. Like dessert.” Focusing on their own lives before being with a man, and then growing together as a couple, is the secret to an equal relationship for women. 

Until the majority of South Korean men and government officials agree with that, however, the 4B movement will continue spreading throughout South Korea and the world, bringing men an opportunity for self-reflection — and women peace. 

Isabella Madruga is a senior majoring in Writing Seminars and Sociology from San Francisco, Calif. 

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