(CNN) — It took three years for players to notice the “offensive” hand gesture lurking in one of South Korea’s most popular multiplayer games.
When players made their avatars laugh or talk or give the OK sign in “Lost Ark,” they clicked an icon depicting an index finger nearly touching a thumb.
Some of the game’s users began claiming in August that the gesture was a sexist insult against men, and they demanded its removal.
What happened next underscores a trend in South Korea among anti-feminists, who have been increasingly pushing companies to repent for what they see as a conspiracy within the government and private companies to promote a feminist agenda.
Smilegate — the creator of “Lost Ark” and one of South Korea’s biggest video game developers — quickly complied with the requests for removal.
A gender war has been unfolding in South Korea for years, pitting feminists against angry young men who feel they’re being left behind as the country seeks to address gender inequality.
Now, the latest development in this war is reaching a fever pitch. Since May, more than 20 brands and government organizations have removed what some see as feminist symbols from their products, after mounting pressure. At least 12 of those brands or organizations have issued an apology to placate male customers.
Anti-feminism has a years-long history in South Korea, and research suggests that such sentiments are taking hold among the country’s young men. In May, the Korean marketing and research firm Hankook Research said it found that more than 77% of men in their 20s and more than 73% of men in their 30s were “repulsed by feminists or feminism,” according to a survey. (The firm surveyed 3,000 adults, half of whom were men.)
The online firestorm that has spread across South Korea’s corporate landscape kicked off in May with a simple camping advertisement.
GS25, one of the country’s biggest convenience store chains, released an ad that month promoting foods marketed for camping. It included a drawing of an index finger and a thumb poised to pick up a sausage.
Critics claimed the image was code for feminist sympathies — a reference to a logo once used by Megalia, a now-defunct feminist online community, to ridicule the size of men’s genitals.
Though Megalia has shut down, anti-feminists are trying to purge South Korea of the finger-pinch gesture.
GS25 removed the hand symbol from the poster. But critics still weren’t satisfied. One person pointed out that the last letter of each word featured in English on the poster — “Emotional Camping Must-have Item” — when read backward spelled “megl,” which he said was shorthand for Megalia.
GS25 removed the text from the poster, but that still wasn’t enough. People theorized that even the moon in the sky over the tent was a feminist symbol, because a moon is used as the logo of a feminist scholar organization in South Korea.
After revising the poster multiple times, GS25 eventually pulled it entirely, just a day after the campaign launched. The company apologized and promised a better editorial process. It also said it reprimanded the staff responsible for the ad, and removed the marketing team leader.
The online mob had tasted success, and it wanted more.
Other companies and government organizations soon became targets. And there were plenty to pick from, as holding an item between thumb and forefinger is a common way to display it without obscuring it.
The online fashion retailer Musinsa was criticized for offering women-only discounts, as well as an ad displaying a credit card held with a finger pinch. The company defended the use of that motif as a neutral element regularly used in advertising, and said its discount program was meant to help expand its small female customer base. Still, founder and CEO Cho Man-ho stepped down after the backlash.
Dongsuh, the Korean company that licenses a Starbucks ready-to-drink line in the country, was attacked in July after one of its Korean Instagram accounts published an image of fingers pinching a can of coffee. The company pulled the ad and apologized, saying that it “considers these matters seriously.”
Even local governments have been caught up in the pressure campaign. The Pyeongtaek city government was criticized in August after uploading an image to its Instagram account that warned residents of a heatwave. It used an illustration of a farmer wiping his forehead — and critics said that the farmer’s hand resembled the finger pinch.
“How deeply did [feminists] infiltrate?” one person wrote on MLB Park, an internet forum used primarily by men. Another person shared contact information for the city government, encouraging people to flood their channels with complaints. The image was later removed from the Instagram account.
At the core of the anti-feminist campaign is a widespread fear among young men that they are falling behind their female peers, according to Park Ju-yeon, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Yonsei University.
The sentiment has grown because of a hyper competitive job market and skyrocketing housing prices. The government has also rolled out programs in recent years to bring more women into the workforce. Proponents of those programs have said they’re necessary for closing gender gaps, but some men have worried they give women an unfair advantage.
Another compounding factor: Unlike women, men in South Korea have to complete up to 21 months of military service before they’re 28 years old — a sore point for some men who feel unfairly burdened.
This year’s corporate pressure campaign adds another complication, as brands weigh the possible fallout.
Young men are “big spenders,” said Professor Choi Jae-seob, a marketing professor at Namseoul University in Seoul. He added that many young people today are driven by personal political values when they buy things.
Ha, a 23-year-old university student, said he pays attention to what companies say about gender issues before making a purchase.
“Between two stores, I would use the one that doesn’t support [feminism],” said Ha, who declined to give his full name because he said that gender is a thorny topic among his peers.
Ha said he’s far from alone. When his friends were discussing the GS25 camping poster, for example, he was surprised to find that many of them felt the way he did: “I realized that many men were silently seething.”
Some women say that the corporate apologies are creating a climate where some people are afraid to identify as feminist.
In response to this year’s anti-feminist pressure campaigns, though, some feminists have been fighting back. The apology over the camping poster from GS25, for example, prompted feminists to call for boycotts against the company. Some people shared images online of themselves shopping at rival stores, using hashtags that called on people to avoid shopping at GS25.
& © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.