Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye (center, first row) chants a slogan promoting a “women’s revolution,” joined by some 50 Saenuri members and other women leaders at an event in Yeouido, Seoul, Oct. 27. (Yonhap News)
Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye had refrained from using her gender in her campaign. Emphasizing the fact that she could become the nation’s first woman president is considered a double-edged sword as it could rally female votes, but could also backfire in a society where men are still dominant and security is a top concern.
When she brought the issue to the forefront last week, it stirred a rancorous dispute. But the losing side appears to be her opponents who met a torrent of accusations of sexism after raising doubt about her “femininity.” A psychologist went so far as to comment that Park, unmarried, is a woman only in terms of genitals.
“This is an insult on all women as well as the presidential candidate,” said Kim Sung-joo, a co-chairperson of the party’s election committee.
An opposition spokesman said the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee lacks femininity because she has never agonized with childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices as ordinary Korean women do.
Kim Moo-sung, chief of Park’s campaign office, fired back saying, “They are still tied to conventional thinking” defining women’s roles as such.
With one and a half months remaining before the Dec. 19 election, major presidential contenders are striving to win over women voters, who as of April, made up 50.35 percent of the electorate with many of them considered undecided.
Park’s new charge
All promise to increase women’s opportunities in education and jobs and relieve the burden of childcare. They have launched teams for gender equality within their camps and appointed women to key campaign posts including spokesperson.
Park’s emphasis on her bid to become Korea’s first female president came as polls showed that her gender advantage is meager, possibly diminishing.
A poll carried out by Gallup from Oct. 22-26 showed that in a multiple-candidates race against Rep. Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo, Park received 37 percent of support from women, no higher than from men. In a Media Research survey on Oct. 27, Park garnered 43.5 percent among women, 3.9 points higher than among men. But female support for her fell by 1.2 points from two months before.
Against this backdrop, Park began to alter her tone on Oct. 27, proclaiming that electing a female president would be the nation’s biggest reform.
“If I win in the upcoming election, I am to become the first female president ever in Korea’s constitutional history,” Park said at the inauguration ceremony of her camp’s gender equality panel.
“All speak of change and renewal, but nothing is more innovative than a female head of state.”
The former party chief also pledged to assign female figures to key government posts.
“Throughout the world, female leaders have overcome various crises by displaying delicate yet subtle leadership,” she also said, referring to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Faced with the possibility of another global economic crisis next year, we should now establish a feminine, motherly leader who may sacrifice all for the sake of the people.”
Ever since she made her political debut in the late 1990s, Park has stood at the center of public attention, not only as the daughter of the former president but as one of the few female politicians in a position of leadership.
She, however, had not drawn much attention to her gender before recently, including in the presidential election primaries in 2007 and the general elections earlier this year.
“(A female leader) may have some extra advantages over male leaders,” she said in the party’s presidential primaries in July, reluctant to elaborate further.
In August, she mentioned the British Empire’s Queen Elizabeth I as her political role model instead of her father as she long had. But this was regarded as a move to avoid then heated debate on her historical perspective associated with the former dictatorial president.
Her opponents referred to Park’s change of stance as a political scheme to break out of stagnation in the polls.
“Park has never lived the life of an ordinary woman who would worry about childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices,” said the DUP’s spokesperson Rep. Jung Sung-ho.
“Few will see her as a female presidential candidate (who may speak for the female population).”
Floor leader Rep. Park Jie-won and other DUP lawmakers also criticized Park of contributing little to promoting women’s rights.
“Park is a fifth-term lawmaker, having held her parliamentary seat for 16 consecutive years, but none of her 15 bills involved women’s rights or welfare,” said Rep. Seo Young-kyo, a female proportional representative last week.
The party’s presidential candidate Moon Jae-in, too, attacked Park’s “female president” pitch.
“While numerous activists fought to improve women’s rights and to expand their social roles, Park lived a sheltered life under the patronage of Cheong Wa Dae and the Jeongsu Foundation,” Moon said through his spokesperson.
“She should be ashamed of putting up her gender (as an election slogan) all of a sudden.”
In terms of power structure, Park has always represented the privileged class and is not fit to refer to herself as the protector of the socially weak, including women, he added.
To these attacks, the Saenuri Party charged that the left-wing distorted the true significance of a female president.
“The people are looking forward to a female president, not because Park is a woman, but because a new, female leadership is needed to bring changes to current politics,” said Rep. Chung Mong-joon, co-head of Park’s election camp.
Feud over ‘femininity’
The response of the opposition, however, led to another round of disputes.
“Through their logic, (Park’s opponents) are limiting women’s roles to childbirth, childcare, education and grocery shopping,” said Kim Moo-sung, Park’s election headquarters chief.
“They also insulted single women by suggesting marriage as a standard of judging one’s femininity.”
It is actually the DUP’s perspective which forces women into a stereotypical social frame and causes gender discrimination in society, Kim argued.
“Park is not the only female candidate in this presidential race,” he also said, referring to Lee Jung-hee and Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive minority parties.
“The DUP will only contradict itself by disparaging Park’s potential as a female president.”
Controversy elevated further recently as Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University, used more provocative terms to describe Park.
“Women, in social terms, indicate those who get married, give birth and raise children, in short, living their lives as women,” Hwang said in a televised interview last week.
“Park may have the genitals of a woman but has never performed her (social) role as a woman.”
His comments triggered a backlash not only from the conservative camp but also from female citizens and human rights activists.
“(Dissenters to Park) seem so obsessed with bringing her down as to have lost their discernment or manners,” said Rep. Chung.
Mindful of female voter sentiment, most candidates have also placed childcare atop of their election campaign list.
Rep. Park suggested offering one-month leave to fathers after childbirth and covering their wages with the state-run employment insurance fund.
Rep. Moon pledged to provide a monthly subsidy of 100,000 won ($91.64) to all families with children under 12.
Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo spoke of expanding the range of public childcare facilities in order to help out working couples.
All three must overcome the challenge of securing the necessary financial resources but are nevertheless determined to push ahead with their plans and to depict themselves as women-friendly ahead of the election.
It is generally agreed that a tax hike will be inevitable but the candidates have so far remained vague over the details. Only Moon has come up with brief outlines, such as by taxing the upper bracket and conglomerates.
All three major candidates also have appointed female figures as their key spokespersons.
One of the closest aides to the Saenuri Party’s Park is her spokesperson Cho Yoon-sun, a former lawyer and party lawmaker.
Cho joined the parliament as a proportional representative of the former Grand National Party and served as party spokesperson for two years. She was then classified as a political neutral figure within the party but has now risen as a key pro-Park figure, after taking her current post in Park’s election camp in July.
With her sophisticated looks, feminine sensitivity and amiable attitude, Cho is known to play a crucial role in softening the public image of Park, whose has long been seen as stiff and uncommunicative.
Cho’s DUP counterpart is first-termer Rep. Jin Sun-mee who accompanies Rep. Moon to most of his campaigning occasions.
The former activist lawyer is famous for her sociability with citizens, reporters and other politicians ― a quality which makes up for the taciturn and reserved character of candidate Moon.
A constant presence at the side of non-party candidate Ahn is Chung Young-soon, who formerly served the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a representative liberal body, as its first-ever female secretary-general.
“Chung was appointed to her post for practical reasons, not for her gender,” said an official of Ahn’s camp.
“It is, however, true that female officials hold many advantages, especially in predicting the female voters’ reactions and responding to them.”
By Bae Hyun-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)