South Korea's 4B movement is going viral — but what is it?

A group of Korean women protest in Gwangwhamun plaza in 2018

Following a series of confusing and disturbing assaults on women in New York City in previous weeks — in which mysterious men would walk up to young women and punch them in the face — some American women took to TikTok sharing how women in other parts of the world are confronting gendered violence and inequality.

And what has been taking hold in South Korea since about 2019 — following the debut of Cho Nam-Joo’s novel “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” — has been reinvigorated on social media for women around the world: The 4B movement.

The 4B movement represents four strategic “nos” set forth by Korean feminists: No dating (biyeonae), no heterosexual sex (bisekseu), no heterosexual marriage (bihon), and no child-rearing and childbirth (bichulsan). 

“Many who vow to follow 4B defend the no dating and no sex rule as their response to the intimate violence and nonconsensual porn crimes that hit the headlines daily,” journalist Hawon Jung writes in her book “Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea's Feminist Movement.”

Intimate violence and nonconsensual porn crimes? Indeed; South Korean women have long been oppressed by patriarchal systems the same way many women in the U.S. have. But as the #MeToo movement gained traction in America, so too did the #WithYou movement in Korea, as women began to fight back against harassment and lack of autonomy.

“Sexual harassment and sex-based crimes are rife, especially with hidden cameras that secretly film women in almost every imagineable space, from public transportation to bathrooms in offices and schools,” Jung wrote. “And even in the privacy of their own homes.”

This lack of privacy and bodily autonomy is only one arm of what Korean women fight against.

The country has recorded the largest gender pay gap in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual survey since 1996. 

Women are confronted with extremely harsh beauty standards — and the country is seen as the world’s capital for cosmetic surgery

Abortion has been illegal in most circumstances for decades.

Nearly 80% of women have been sexually harassed at work, per a 2015 study from the South Korean government.

Workforce discrimination and outdated familial expectations require mothers to handle all childcare and household responsibilities.

The current president, Yoon Suk-Yeol is attempting to close down the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family

Patriarchy is the law of the land.

So, 4B has become the resistance.

How do people participate in the 4B movement?

Publicly identifying as a feminist is still heavily taboo in Korean culture, so the 4B movement is made of members who identify themselves online as “anonymous women,” typically keeping personal or identifying information private.

But between digital conversations and IRL rallies, the movement advocates for women to reject societal expectations as a protest against patriarchy. 

And beyond that, it’s about individual women making individual choices to not participate in society as it stands now. 

“We see this opting out kind of running throughout East Asia. It’s this idea that marriage is no longer required to have a good life. You can have a job. You can make money on your own. And in fact, it is not only no longer required, it might actually stifle your life because of gender relations within the household,” Demographer Jennifer Sciubba said recently on an episode of “The Ezra Klein Show.”

“In these low fertility societies, it seems to be the case that women are not willing to reproduce the current social structures. They are not working for them to a huge degree, to the point that they are willing to opt out of this idea of marriage and having children, and seek a different path for themselves.”

While 4B itself is too new to be entirely responsible for the country’s current demographics, South Korea is already in dire straits when it comes to a declining birth rate. 

South Korea currently holds the lowest fertility rate in the world, with projections estimating that it will drop to 0.68 this year — compared to the global average of around 2.4. Experts even say that the country’s population of 51 million may halve by 2100.

Not only do these numbers threaten the general population, but they also pose major consequences for the country’s economy and military strength. 

While the government has attempted to make change with some initiatives — spending the equivalent of $270 billion in childcare and childbirth subsidies — many South Korean women still see having children as too much of a risk in the success-driven but equality-starved country.

“Practicing bihon means you’re eliminating the risks that come from heterosexual marriage or dating,” Yeowon, a 26-year-old Korean office worker, told The Cut in a recent article.

@wtfaleisa Replying to @user9720585462941 ♬ original sound - wtfaleisa

More candidly, a TikToker named Alesia posted earlier this year explaining the movement. “It’s hilarious because all the men, and the government, are like ‘oh my god what do we do?’” She said.

“South Korean women have been very clear from day one… like ‘hey, either you get your act together, or we are literally eliminating all of this. We’re shutting it down.’”

What is the impact of the 4B movement?

Due to the anonymous and varied nature of 4B, it’s unclear how many people identify as members of the movement, with estimates anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 followers, according to The Cut

Regardless, the movement has been polarizing. Jung writes in her book that anti-feminists call 4B participants — or young women in general —  “mentally diseased,” following “antisocial ideology.” 

While declining birth rates are certainly concerning — and can be even more distressing upon understanding the nature of this social justice campaign — 4B has ultimately put the onus on men to answer for the systems they have created and upheld.

“The patriarchal norms in South Korea, given its economic status and the educational level of its women, are so relentless that the resistance against it tends to be just as intense,” Lee Na-Young, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University, said in Jung’s book.

“Movements like 4B are a message of warning that women would boycott romantic relationships unless society and men change.”

On the other hand, women and those who are pro-4B are calling for the movement to extend beyond the borders of South Korea. As the principles of 4B take hold online, women from around the world are curious what this sort of organized action could do on a global scale.

Even influential political voices, like former Florida Congressional candidate Pam Keith, could see the movement traveling west.

“I’m going to say this once: 4B movement,” she tweeted earlier this month. “Keep coming for our rights, GOP.”

As governments — including the U.S. — continue to eliminate choice from women, 4B is the result of women leveraging the choices they do still have.

“For me, ‘no marriage’ is not just a lifestyle,” Kang Han-Byul, a 35-year-old Korean woman who follows 4B, told Jung in an interview for “Flowers of Fire.” 

“It’s a way of trying to bring down patriarchy.”

For Kang’s mother, Helen Kim, who had spent most of her life adhering to misogynistic gender roles and self-sacrifice, the movement is one of hope.

“My daughter and her generation is different and should be different. Our daughters deserve better,” she said in the book. 

“I hope my daughters will live a happy, fulfilling life, finding inspirations from friends and growing old together with them in a world that respects a more diverse way of life.”

Header image courtesy of Hawon Jung/X

Article Details

April 10, 2024 2:11 PM
Tennis pro Venus Williams stands on a tennis court, holding up a Barbie version of herself. Her hair is in a ponytail and she wears a white tank top.

Barbie releases 9 new dolls of trailblazing women athletes — who made the team?

Ahead of the 2024 Olympics, Mattel has released nine one-of-a-kind Barbie dolls that represent pro women athletes like Venus Williams and Mary Fowler.
A row of books on a shelf

5 books to help you better understand today's campus protests in the context of history

Every so often, a cause ignites a sustained fury on college campuses across the nation. In 2020, it was Black Lives Matter. In 2011, it was Occupy Wall Street. In the 1980s, it was apartheid in South Africa. Right now, it’s the Israeli military campaign in Gaza.
No items found.

Want to stay up-to-date on positive news?

The best email in your inbox.
Filled with the day’s best good news.