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Female leaders call for drastic reforms for women’s role

Park Geun-hye will make history on Monday when she becomes Korea’s first female president but her ascendancy masks daunting hurdles Korean women face in politics, business, and all quarters of society.

“Park Geun-hye was not elected president because of improvements in women’s status in South Korea,” said Kim Jung-sook, the leader of the nation’s largest women’s rights group and a former top official in the Grand National Party, which changed its name to the Saenuri Party last year.

“It was her personal image, aura, and family history that won the election. I cannot say that she is the end result of South Korea’s women’s movement,” she told The Korea Herald at her office. 

Kim, 67, is the president of the Korean National Council of Women, an umbrella organization of 64 women’s rights groups that boasts more than 5 million members.

She was one of the first women to take up a seat in the National Assembly following the transition to civilian rule in 1989. She served three terms, becoming one of South Korea’s longest serving female lawmakers.

She also chaired the conservative party’s subcommittee on women in 1995, and in 2002 served as the highest-ranking party official.

“Last year’s presidential election was much more about ideology, whether it should be the conservatives or progressives who should take power,” said Kim.

The sentiment is shared by Rep. Kim Sang-hee of the main opposition Democratic United Party, who chairs the National Assembly’s Gender Equality and Family Committee.

“It is true that Park Geun-hye is a woman, and she has had her share of personal hardships, but I don’t feel a sense of ‘sisterhood’ with her as a woman,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“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.”

The lawmaker entered Ewha Womens University in 1972, just as the iron-fisted rule of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, solidified under the promulgation of the Yushin Consitution the same year, which gave the president almost absolute power. Park apologized for her father’s actions last year, describing Yushin as “violating the values of the constitution and delaying South Korea’s political development.”

Early exposure to domestic violence and the plight of factory workers, especially female workers, led Kim, a pharmacist by training, to become a women’s rights activist.

Kim founded several organizations dedicated to women’s rights in the 80s, and played a critical role in the push for legislation guaranteeing gender equality and tough punishment against sex crimes.

Citing the still marginal number of female lawmakers in the 300-member National Assembly ― only 15.7 percent are women ― the two leading women’s rights advocates said that there was still a pervasive belief among the Korean people that politics was the business of men.

“There’s a negative image attached to politics in our country. It is seen as violent, corrupt, authoritarian, and dirty business. Consequently, there is doubt as to whether women can survive and be competitive,” said Kim Jung-sook.

The deeply ingrained patriarchal tradition of Korean society also precludes women from pursuing leadership roles not only in politics, but also in business and other areas. But females offer something different from male leaders, according to Kim.

“Where male leadership can often become violent and too reliant on authority, women’s leadership has at its basis maternal affection. They tend to be more dedicated, tolerant, and tender,” said Kim.

To increase women’s political participation, Kim argued that South Korea should alter its elections law to guarantee equal participation of females and males after the fashion of European countries. France, for example, by law requires political parties filling up candidates for elections to have 50 percent of their candidates be women.

“Simply electing a female president will not do much to change the status of South Korean women or increase female political participation,” said Kim. “There needs to be a revolutionary change in the candidate nomination process. The law must state that parties must nominate men and women on an equal footing.”

Kim also points out that there have been several Asian countries besides South Korea, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, which have elected female heads of state without drastic change in women’s status.

“It is the top leader’s political will that is important,” said Kim. “Considering how Park’s presidential campaign slogan was ‘prepared female president,’ I think her administration should include an equal number of female and male members.”

Of the more than 30 Cabinet members and ministers nominated by Park Geun-hye last week, only two were women.

“The process of how parties nominate candidates ahead of elections must be altered to increase women’s participation in politics. The current system is disadvantageous to women. The number of proportional representatives in the National Assembly is also very low. The number should be increased,” Kim Sang-hee said

The opposition lawmaker has proposed legislation aiming to alleviate the uncertainty associated with women’s employment and the workplace gender inequality.

“There is certainly a glass ceiling against women at the workplace. While there are a lot of women working at low-level jobs, if you move higher up, where money and power are concentrated, you rarely see women. Even if they are equally qualified and capable, women still face discrimination in the hiring process and promotions,” she said.

By Samuel Songhoon Lee (