Back To Top

Glass ceiling outlasts Madam President

Politics remains man’s game in Korea

An hour after being elected Korea’s first female president on Dec. 19, Park Geun-hye traveled to her party headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul.

She was greeted by party officials ― mostly men in their 60s. “Park Geun-hye! Daetongryong!” they chanted, repeatedly, yelling the Korean word for president.

Next to her were Chung Mong-joon, one of the nation’s richest businessmen, and Hwang Woo-yea, Saenuri Party chairman and five-term lawmaker. She received flowers from Lee Jun-seok, 28, a male venture entrepreneur whom Park presented as the voice of the younger generation.

She then moved to Gwanghwamun Square, where her father, Park Chung-hee, once stood with his lieutenants after staging a military coup on May 16, 1961.
Park Geun-hye will take office as Korea’s first female president Monday. This photo shows her meeting with a group of women in November as part of her presidential campaign. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Park Geun-hye will take office as Korea’s first female president Monday. This photo shows her meeting with a group of women in November as part of her presidential campaign. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“This election is the victory of you the people. The victory is that of the people’s heart emanating from the yearning to overcome crises and revive the economy,” she told the crowd.

Her much anticipated victory speech lasted just over a minute, without referring to the one word that defined her presidential campaign: woman.

Meaning of female leader in dispute

Park won the election with the catchphrase a “prepared female leader.” Her campaign featured a series of pledges to promote gender equality, protect women from discrimination and violence and boost support for balancing career and motherhood.

The election of the first female head of state may be a milestone in women’s empowerment in Korea, according to some observers.

“The election of a female president will have far greater impact on our society than putting a woman in any other position,” said Kim Myeong-ja, who heads the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations.

“Having a female as the head of the state will come as a fresh surprise and shock to children and adolescents and other developing countries that take South Korea as a model.”

But the significance of having a female president is still bitterly contested even among feminist circles and hopes for the improved status of women have quickly fizzled mainly due to the paucity of women among her government nominees.

The fiercest criticism came from female leaders and women’s rights activists.

“I don’t really see her as a female leader,” said the main opposition Democratic United Party’s Rep. Kim Sang-hee, who chairs the National Assembly’s Gender Equality and Family Committee.

“She became the ‘queen of elections’ by rekindling the favorable memories attributed to her father. I don’t think she represents women or female leaders per se, so I don’t think her election represents a groundbreaking moment for Korean women.”

Among the more than 30 key Cabinet and Cheong Wa Dae appointments, only two were women ― Cho Yoon-sun as gender equality and family minister and Yoon Jin-sook as maritime affairs and fisheries minister.
The National Assembly building is ready for Park Geun-hye’s inauguration as the 18th president Monday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
The National Assembly building is ready for Park Geun-hye’s inauguration as the 18th president Monday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

Record on women’s issues

“The Cabinet appointments raise doubts as to whether Park is serious about implanting her campaign pledges and is a tremendous disappointment,” Korean Women’s Association United, a coalition of more than 60 advocacy groups, said in a statement Monday.

The organization in particular criticized the selection of Cho, a lawyer and former vice-chairwoman of Citibank’s Seoul office.

“We express sincere worry that a person who lacks experience and professional capability in women’s issues has been nominated to head the ministry,” the press release stated.

The Korean National Council of Women also issued a press release stating that Park had failed to live up to her campaign pledge to increase the appointment of women in government.

“Park’s cabinet runs counter to today’s trend (of greater gender equality),” the statement read.

“The foremost step that should be taken for our country to really join the ranks of developed countries should not be forgotten; there needs to be an expansion of women’s participation and representation in society to achieve gender equality in society at large.”

During her nearly two decades of political life, Park did not emphasize her female identity, perhaps in a nod to South Korea’s deeply patriarchal social mantra. But she came out in full stride to boost her credentials in women’s rights in last year’s election.

“The knowledge-based society of the 21st century is an era in which how women’s potential is utilized will determine the competitive edge of the nation,” Park said during a press conference last year when she announced her campaign policies targeting women. “I will create a society where women are worked and judged equally as men.”

Park pledged to implement a quota system where 30 percent of positions at public institutions and educational jobs would be filled by women. The former first daughter also proposed a project to nurture 100,000 female leaders by establishing a government-run academy dedicated to female leadership.

Park, who has never married and has no children, also promised to significantly expand government-sponsored child care services. Male workers, in addition to their female counterparts, would be encouraged to take paternity leave, and companies with a high number of female employees would receive tax breaks and other incentives.

Despite her promises to improve the status and opportunities available to women, many women’s rights activists, largely progressives, are critical of the former lawmaker’s legislative record on women’s issues.

During the 16 years she was at the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye proposed 15 bills in total, none of which related to women.

“What did Park say and what did she do when women were crying on the street, when (women) pushed for legislation revising family law, preventing domestic and sexual violence?” said a joint statement by over 130 advocates of women’s rights issued several days before the presidential election.

“For Park, who never shared in women’s pain and struggle, to proclaim herself a prepared female president amounts to shamelessly riding the coattails of the historical struggles of the women’s movement.”

The outspoken criticism from the women’s group emanates in part from the secluded life Park led as the first daughter. After her father’s assassination in 1979, Park largely remained out of the public eye before she made a political debut in the mid-1990s.

“As I washed the bloodstained necktie and dress shirt of my father, I could not help but cry out in sorrow,” Park recalled in her autobiography published in 2007. “In washing the blood-soaked shirt of my father, I cried all the tears that one would cry in a lifetime.”

Maternal leadership: the great expectations

While her commitment to women’s empowerment is disputed, many share the hope for a more feminine style of leadership in her, in contrast to the commanding, patriarchal leadership of male leaders.

“When people see Park Geun-hye, they see two different faces. When she talks about national security or economic progress, they see her father, Park Chung-hee. When she talks about social welfare and safety, they see her mother, Yook Young-soo,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a presidential history expert at Korea University, in a telephone interview.

While the historical assessment of Park’s father differs across the ideological spectrum and age groups, Yook garners wider affection and reverence for the maternal affection she often displayed when she visited factories, living quarters of the poor, and hospitals to console the poor and the weak.

Even the wife of late President Roh Moo-hyun once singled out Yook as the most admirable of the first ladies, though her husband often denounced Park as the “dictator’s daughter.”

“She was very graceful, always smiling, and showed genuine concern for the plight of the poor,” said Hahm. “When Park visits traditional marketplaces and shakes hands with grandmothers, all they talk about is her mother. They don’t talk about her father.”

Experts also indentify some noticeable differences between female and male leaders.

“Unlike men, who are used to a traditional, patriarchal, and authoritarian leadership, women tend to value the bond between the people, being considerate, and cooperation,” said Kim Kwang-woong, who taught public administration at Seoul National University.

“(Female leaders) therefore tend to value identification over confrontation, sympathy over conflict, and persuasion over commands, and this is more appropriate to achieving people’s unity.”

There is also hope that Park may be able to rein in the perennial problem of South Korean politics: corruption.

“There is usually a higher chance that female politicians would be free from the problems of corruption than the typical male politician,” said Ka Sang-joon, a politics professor at Dankook University. “Considering how Park has no spouse or children, there is anticipation that she only needs to take care of her young siblings.”

Throughout last year’s campaign, Park repeatedly stressed that “I have no family to look after, and no children to pass on my inheritance” and that “I owe a debt to nobody.”

Even so, there is concern that a female president may face difficulties in communicating with political leaders and senior government officials, who are overwhelmingly men, and may not be used to working with female leaders. Female leadership that emphasizes communication and identification also runs the risk of organizational inefficiency and delay, according to some experts reported in the local press.

But Park has been able to allay such concerns by emphasizing her high regard for principle and credibility, according to Choi Jin, who heads the Institute of Presidential Leadership.

“While Park appealed to the people with the warmth and tenderness unique to women, in terms of content, she also displayed the masculine attributes of strong principles and credibility,” said Choi.

Glass ceiling

While South Korea may have broken ground in electing its first female president, it still lags behind in women’s participation in politics. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments from 162 countries, South Korea ranked 105th in the proportion of women represented in its legislature, right above North Korea.

Of the 300 available seats in the National Assembly, only 47, or 15.7 percent, are filled by women. In addition, a study recently released by Rep. Kim Han-pyo of the governing Saenuri Party found that among the 2,990 executive positions at 288 public institutions, only 263, or 8.8 percent, were filled by women.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum ranked South Korea 108th in the world in gender equality. A joint report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a think-tank of industrialized nations, and Korean Women’s Development Institute found that the employment rate of college educated women in South Korea, at just 60.1 percent, was the lowest among the 33 members of OECD.

In comparison, the rate in Turkey was 64 percent, and that in Mexico and Greece all exceeded the 70 percent mark. In addition, on average, the salary of a South Korea female is 39 percent lower than that of her male counterpart. The wage difference is 2.6 times higher than the OECD average.

“To improve the quality of female employment, there needs to be an improvement in the working conditions and job prospects of female temporary and contract workers, and also the implementation of policies to allow highly-educated women in permanent jobs more leeway in child birth and rearing,” said Kim Tae-hong, a senior researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute.

Considering how one in five women employed in both the public and private sectors leave the job market due to child birth, South Korea has one of the lowest proportion of women executives in Asia, a mere one percent of the labor force, according to Kim.

The number of female executives at South Korea’s 100 largest companies exceeded 100 for the first time last week.

Experts frequently cite South Korea’s deeply ingrained neo-Confucian culture, which shuns women’s participation in leadership roles, for the discrepancy.

“Patriarchal culture based on Confucian values intensified the gender inequality existent in the societal structure,” wrote Song Woo-young, a professor in management at Hanbat University.

The number of women entering politics has grown slow steadily since the republic’s founding. In 1949, Im Young-sun became the first woman to get elected to the legislature. A North Jeolla native and a graduate of University of Southern California, Im advocated Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule. She won a seat in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.

The number of female lawmakers noticeably increased following the transition civilian rule in 1989. In the 1995 parliamentary election, Choo Mi-ae became the first judge and the first female to be elected to office in a district in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Despite being a Gyeongsang native, Choo zealously campaigned for Jeolla region’s favorite son, Kim Dae-jung, in the 1997 presidential election. Her bitter fight against regionalism earned her the nickname “Choo d’Arc,” after the popular female French warrior Joan of Arc. 

In 2002, during the Kim Dae-jung administration, Jang Sang became the first woman to be nominated for prime minister. But her nomination failed to pass the National Assembly after her past misdeeds surfaced. She was found to have falsified data in her resident registration, and was accused of engaging in real-estate speculation and misrepresenting her educational background.

In 2006, during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Han Myeong-suk became the nation’s first woman prime minister. A well-known democracy activist, she tended to her husband for the 13 years that he, also a unification activist, was jailed for engaging in seditious activities under Pyongyang’s directive.

Last year’s parliamentary elections marked a significant stride in the representation of women in legislature. A record number of 47 female members, including proportional representatives, made it into the National Assembly. Female lawmakers now account for 15.6 percent of the National Assembly’s 300 seats. That represents a three-fold increase in the number of female lawmakers over the past 12 years.

Among the major political parties, the main opposition Democratic United Party holds the largest number of female lawmakers.

Including 11 female proportional representatives, the DUP has 24 female lawmakers. The figure puts the sex ratio of the DUP at about 4 to 1. Leading figures include Park Young-sun, a TV anchor-turned-politician who was a member of its Supreme Council.

The ruling Saenuri Party also saw a relatively large number of female lawmakers being elected. Of the 152 seats the party won, 17 were filled by female lawmakers. Of the 17, four represent constituencies in Seoul, Busan and Daegu, and the remainder are proportional representatives. Among the leading female members are Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, who is one Park’s closest aides, and Na Kyung-won, a judge-turned-politician who was the party’s candidate for Seoul mayor.

Of the two progressive parties’ 13 seats, five are taken by female lawmakers including Shim Sang-jung.

Female lawmakers also point out the “glass ceiling” they frequently encounter at the National Assembly.

“While people’s sensibility has changed quite a bit, there is still a big male-oriented aspect in the culture and customs of the political arena,” said Rep. Lee Eun-joo of the Democratic United Party in a radio appearance last week. “There is also the view that women are mere ornaments.”

Lee added that a lot of political business often takes place after work, usually at settings involving alcohol.

“The sense of solidarity formed there often proves to be the key to problems, and for women, such culture and atmosphere poses great difficulty,” said Lee.

Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, a senior official in the Saenuri Party and a close aid to President-elect Park, also noted that female political candidates are often subject to more stringent standards than male candidates during the candidate nomination process.

“Female politicians who do superb legislative work and are widely loved sometimes get thrown off the ballot,” said Lee. “Female politicians who speak up and walk their own path are often described as being stubborn and spiteful.”

By Samuel Songhoon Lee (