The Empowerment of Women in South Korea

Political Participation of Women in South Korea  

The participation of women in the political arena is a growing trend in the twenty-first century. Until the second decade of the twentieth century, only New Zealand and Australia had extended suffrage to women in national elections.[1] By the final quarter of the twentieth century, only a handful of countries, such as Saudi Arabia legally excluded women from political processes open to men.[2] Traditionally, politics has been a male-dominated occupation and women have been underrepresented. This holds true for South Korea, as only a few women hold leadership positions within South Korean politics.

Women in the country are viewed as apolitical, mainly due to gender role socialization through socialization agents such as family, school and mass media.[3] With the promulgation of the July 17, 1948 South Korean Constitution, women’s rights to employment and education were highlighted in an attempt to prohibit discrimination. Article 9, Paragraph 1 of the 1948 Constitution states:

All citizens shall be equal before the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status. [4]

Be that as it may, women’s underrepresentation in Korean politics had yet to improve. The average number of women representatives in past legislatures in the Republic of Korea has been around a mere two percent.[5] In the political history of South Korea, women elected in the parliament constitute a very small percentage of representation. From 1948 to 2004 the average percentage of women in the South Korean National Assembly averaged 2.9 percent. Except in the years 1973, 2000, and 2004, women were noticeably elected to less than 5 percent of the National Assembly seats.

The percentage of women representation in the parliament increased from 5.9 percent in the 16th National Assembly of 2000 to 13 percent in the 17th National Assembly of 2004, illustrating the increasing status and political empowerment of women. In 1993, President Kim Yong-sam appointed three women ministers, in 1998 President Kim De-jung appointed two women cabinet ministers, and in 2003 President Roh Moo-hyun appointed four women ministers.[6]

According to Eun Mee Kim, Dean at Ewha Womans University:

Korea has been heavily influenced by traditional thoughts such as Confucianism that really made it difficult for women to be respected equal to men. The value and position of women was much lower in the society. Even if you look around the world, there were more women presidents, leaders, and vice presidents but we have not have that in Korea. Discrimination against women made it difficult.[7]

The inauguration on February 25, 2013 of the first woman president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye was a turning point in the role of women in South Korean politics.

Heretofore, South Korea had not elected any woman president since its foundation in 1948. Neo-Confucianism, which influenced South Korea in the course of its history, points out that passiveness, ignorance, non-intelligence, obedient, chaste, soft and subservient are feminine virtues while men should be masculine, aggressive, active, intellectual and dominant.[8]

Women Empowerment under the Kim Dae-jung Administration

Kim Dae-jung’s election as chief executive in 1997 became a milestone for women empowerment in South Korea. In the midst of the financial crisis, Kim Dae-jung’s election campaign pledge promises to be “a prepared president”, “a people’s president” and “a women-friendly president.”[9] Although women were granted the right to vote in 1948, they remained marginalized in the political sector in a male-dominated Confucianistic society. Little attention was given to women during election period as it was assumed that women’s decision would follow the husband’s idea.

According to Bong-scuk Sohn, Director of the Center for Korean Women and Politics:

Male dominated, authoritarian, under-the-table politics have so far kept women out of politics.  Under democracy, the type of politics that relies heavily on the informal, private, favor-exchanging and exclusive networking politics will disappear, eventually widening the scope of women’s political participation.  [10]

Therefore, in 1997, democratic consolidation in South Korea was further strengthened when women participation in election became evident as women accounted for half of the voters. It was an unprecedented election that showed women’s consciousness change as women’s active political participation gave a significant opportunity to establish their social significance in society.[11]

President Kim Dae-jung’s political platform for women became pronounced during the campaign as a sign that women would shape the course of the 1997 presidential election. His campaign explicitly stressed that he would be a “women-friendly” president and pledged to fill 30 percent of cabinet positions with women.[12] In his inaugural speech, President Kim Dae-jung said:

The Government of the People will make active efforts to protect women’s rights and develop their abilities. The wall of sexual discrimination in homes, workplaces and throughout society must be removed. [13]

True to his word, under President Kim Dae-jung’s direction, he outlined a clear gender policy. The gender policy includes labor, welfare, family and human rights of women in South Korea. Under the gender policy of the Kim Dae-jung government:[14] 1) women will be 30 percent of the party’s candidates in all the elections; 2) 30 percent of the positions in the government ministry’s committees will be allocated to women; 3) women’s representation in party organizations will increase to more than 30 percent; 4) at least four women will be appointed to cabinet positions and 20 to 30 percent of important policy making positions will be filled with women; 5) women students will not be discriminated against in entrance examinations for special purpose colleges (e.g. Junior Railway College, Accounting College, and Junior Cooperative Farming College) and 6) increase the percentage of women recruited for the Army, Navy and Air Force Academies.[15]

Women’s Role in the Kim Dae-jung Government

Kim Dae-jung’s vision of creating a gender-equal society increased women’s participation in society and improved women’s welfare in the first few years of his administration. However, the historical and cultural influence of Confucianism, legal bias in laws, and high economic growth of South Korea dampened his goals for women empowerment.[16]

Representation of women in the National Assembly accounted for only 5.9 percent in the 16th National Assembly elections of 2000, which was short of the pledge of 30 percent of women to be placed in key positions within government. In the executive branch of the government of President Kim Dae-jung, the promise of four cabinet positions for women did not arrive at the target. In President Kim Dae-jung’s cabinet from 1998 to 2002, only two women were cabinet ministers.[17]

Local elections also proved that institutional barriers remained for women. The number of women elected in direct elections for local government remained extremely small—only 2.3 percent of the total.[18] As of December 2000, the proportion of female civil servants was only 0.9 percent (16 women) among the highest ranks (first through third), while at the fourth rank it was 1.6 percent (120 women), and at the fifth rank it was 3.2 percent (721 women).[19]

Women’s Rights and Welfare

As is common in Confucianistic cultures, women’s participation in Korean society was mainly confined to the domesticity. The transitional regime under Roh Tae-woo (1988-1992) reaffirmed the old practice that families would be primarily responsible for individual welfare, and that the state would provide support only when families failed to do so.[20] Women were directly affected by this practice, as the burden of work in the families was placed in their hands as wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Thus, women’s rights and welfare were limited within the bounds of the family and not in politics or society as a whole.

The welfare of women underwent remarkable changes through President Kim Dae-jung’s direction. The government expanded welfare policy which included the following:[21] 1) a divorced female is now eligible to receive a portion of her husband’s pension if they are married for more than five years; 2) families can now apply for health insurance to pay the hospital expenses for child birth; 3) the public childcare system has been improved with expanded childcare facilities and better salaries for childcare providers and 4) paid maternity leave is now twelve weeks, in line with the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Conclusion

The Kim Dae-jung regime made remarkable changes in the role of women in the government’s thrust of participatory democracy, but the meaningful inclusion of women in the political sphere beyond a numbers game is a key component in achieving real progress. As Dr. Bong-scuk Sohn argues:

Women need to help the nation achieve speedy democratization. If on-going democratic experiments in the Republic of Korea falters, the momentum and unity that have been achieved so far can easily be eroded. [22]

  

Author’s Biography

Archie Resos is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, where he also lectures in diplomatic history. He has a background in South Korean politics, with both his Master of Arts and undergraduate degree completed in Asian Studies from the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas, respectively.


[1] Robert A. Dahl. Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 235.

[2] Chung-hee Sarah Soh. Women in Korean Politics (second edition) (United States of America: Westview Press, Inc., 1993), 1.

[3] Eun Jung Choi and Rebecca Mbuh. “Aspects of Women’s Status in Korea and Cameroon.” Asian Women (Volume 20, Summer 2005) p. 74

[4] Se-Jin Kim et al., Government and Politics of Korea. (Silverspring, Maryland: The Research Institute on Korean Affairs, 1972) p. 297

[5] Bong Scuk Sohn. “Formulation of Strategies to Promote Women’s Participation in Politics and Enhance their Status in Society” taken from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Women in Politics in Asia and the Pacific: Proceedings of  the Seminar on the Participation of Women in Politics as an Aspect of Human Resources Development: 18-20 November 1992, Seoul, Korea (New York: United Nations, 1992), 132.

[6] Eun Jung Choi and Rebecca Mbuh. “Aspects of Women’s Status in Korea and Cameroon.” Asian Women (Volume 20, Summer 2005), 75.

[7] Personal interview with Dean Eun Mee Kim of the Graduate School of International Studies, Ehwa Women’s University on  January 17, 2006, 3:45 pm at the Graduate School of International Studies Building, Ehwa Women’s University, Seoul, South Korea.

[8] Grace H. Moon. The Status of Korean Women: From Mid-Yi Dynasty to the Late Twentieth Century (Seoul, South Korea: Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, 1994), 14.

[9] Seung-kyung Kim. “Gender Policy and the New Status of Women in South Korea” in Chung-in Moon. et al., Korea in Transition: Three Years Under the Kim Dae-jung Government (Seoul, Korea: Yonsei University Press, 2002), 208.

[10] Bong Scuk Sohn. “Formulation of Strategies to Promote Women’s Participation in Politics and Enhance their Status in Society” taken from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Women in Politics in Asia and the Pacific: Proceedings of  the Seminar on the Participation of Women in Politics as an Aspect of Human Resources Development: 18-20 November 1992, Seoul, Korea (New York: United Nations, 1992), 135.

[11] Research Institute of Asian Women. Women as a “Critical Mass” in the 1997 Presidential Elections: Women’s Issue in the Party Platforms. Asian Women (Volume 5, Fall 1997), 167.

[12] Seung-kyung Kim. “Gender Policy and the New Status of Women in South Korea” in Chung-in Moon. et al., Korea in Transition: Three Years Under the Kim Dae-jung Government (Seoul, Korea: Yonsei University Press, 2002), 208.

[13] Kim Dae-jung. The 21st Century and the Korean People: Selected Speeches of Kim Dae-jung, 1998-2004 (Seoul,Korea: Hakgojae Publishing Company, 2004) p.29

[14] Op.cit. 219.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Aileen E. Cabigayan. Gender Empowerment in Comparative Perspective: South Korea and the Philippines (Seoul, Korea: Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, 2004), 43.

[17] Eun Jung Choi and Rebecca Mbuh. “Aspects of Women’s Status in Korea and Cameroon.” Asian Women (Volume 20, Summer 2005), 75.

[18] Seung-kyung Kim. “Gender Policy and the New Status of Women in South Korea” in Chung-in Moon. et al., Korea in Transition: Three Years Under the Kim Dae-jung Government (Seoul, Korea: Yonsei University Press, 2002), 222.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Seung-sook Moon. “Women and Civil Society in South Korea” in Charles K. Armstrong. Ed. Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy and the State (second edition) (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2007), 132.

[21] Op. cit., 222.

[22] Bong-scuk Sohn. “Women’s Political Engagement and Participation in the Republic of Korea” in Barbara J. Nelson et al., Women and Politics Worldwide. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 446.

 

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