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[2018 Local elections] Women candidates missing in local elections

Despite public interest in gender issues, women inadequately represented at upcoming elections

The upcoming local and parliamentary by-elections, slated for June 13, is widely perceived as an assessment of the Moon Jae-in administration‘s first year.

A total of 824 seats in provincial and metropolitan assemblies, 2,927 lower-level local councilors, and 17 superintendents of education will be decided. And in the parliamentary by-elections, National Assembly seats for 12 districts are up for grabs.

The lack of female candidates at the upcoming elections is glaring. The ruling Democratic Party, for example, has no women candidates for chiefs of metropolitan and provincial governments, although it has nominated a total of 17 members. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which has 14 candidates running for the same positions, is fielding one woman.

Women candidates are hard to find in parliamentary by-elections as well. Among the 46 candidates from eight parties, including those who are independent, only three are women. The ruling Democratic Party does not have a single women candidate running for National Assembly seats.


(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

At a time when gender inequality, including wage gap, and rampant violence against women are being intensely discussed, the scarcity of female candidates is especially alarming, according to critics.

“It seems like most parties, especially the ruling party, have no willingness to think about the importance of women’s representation in the country’s politics,” said Lee Jin-ok, the head of the Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, a feminist think-tank.

“The Democratic Party, especially, has shown that it really has given no thought to what it means for the ruling party to not nominate anyone to represent women, the younger generation and those who fight for labor rights for the seats (in the National Assembly as well as chiefs of metropolitan and provincial governments).”

So who are the women who are up for the challenge? The Korea Herald selected a few female candidates who have been drawing attention and even controversies. 

Kwon Soo-jung, Justice Party 

Arguably one of the most progressive women candidates for this year’s upcoming local elections, Kwon Soo-jung, a former Asiana Airlines flight attendant, is running for a seat in Seoul Metropolitan Council.

As a head of Asiana Airlines’ flight union, Kwon fought against the company to ease the dress code for its female employees, claiming that forbidding women from wearing eyeglasses and pants on flights is sexist and discriminatory. In 2014, she became a leading member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The 44-year-old is with the progressive Justice Party, and secured 70 percent of votes at an internal election that decides who gets to run in the upcoming local elections.

On top of labor rights issues, and counter-measures to deal with “gapjil,” a term that refers to the authoritarian attitude of those in power, especially at workplaces, Kwon has said that she is interested in tackling the issue of the gender-based wage gap, as well as workplace sexual harassment.

In Seoul, employed men earn an average of 3.1 million won ($2,867) a month, while their female counterparts make 1.9 million won ($1,757).

Introducing a new ordinance on human rights, including disability rights, is also among Kwon’s pledges.

Bae Hyun-jin, Liberty Korea Party

Even before joining the main opposition Liberty Korea Party earlier this year, former anchorwoman Bae Hyun-jin, 34, had been in the center of controversy, sometimes subjected to arguably misogynistic attacks.

Bae is running for a National Assembly seat in Songpa B district in Seoul, in the upcoming by-election. She is one of the only three women candidates among the 46 who are running for the 12 seats.

At MBC, a public broadcasting company, she served as a primetime news presenter for seven years from 2010-2017.

In 2012, she was labeled a “betrayer” by the MBC union members, as she left the union and quit participating in a strike calling for the resignation of then MBC head Kim Jae-chul.

While her colleagues claimed that the MBC CEO was unlawfully forcing MBC employees to produce contents that were favorable towards then President Lee Myung-bak and his administration, Bae insisted it was her “right” not to endorse the strike and to continue working as a news presenter.

For this decision, she has often been portrayed as a “selfish, overly ambitious woman” who only cared about her career while neglecting her duties as a responsible citizen and a media professional. Her critics have claimed that not endorsing the strike allowed her to keep her position as the MBC’s primetime news presenter.

Bae was removed from her anchorwoman position in December after MBC’s new CEO, Choi Seong-ho, came into office. She left MBC in March, and joined the conservative Liberty Korea Party soon after.

Bae has said she decided to enter politics because she wants to keep her first and foremost value -- “freedom.”

“Everyone has the right to run a business freely, work freely and to live at a decent housing freely,” she recently said in an interview with local media.

“I’ve also spoken out about my freedom to continue with my career (without participating in a strike). (By becoming a politician), I want to work for a society where every citizen is granted their right to freedom.”

Songpa is a district where many of the residents are high-earning professionals, such as medical doctors and lawyers. A number of heavyweight conservative politicians, including Hong Jun-pyo, Lee Hoi-chang and Kim Eul-dong, served as legislators representing the district.

Bae has pledged to reduce tax for homeowners, and, ironically, to fight for media independence against the Moon Jae-in administration, whom she accuses of controlling the media.

Park So-young, Party for Democracy and Peace

Park So-young, 62, is the only female candidate in Gwangju and South Jeolla regions for the upcoming local elections.

A total of six women, including Yang Hyang-ja, a former executive at Samsung Electronics who wanted to run for Gwangju mayor, and Yoon Nan-sil, a former Gwangju-based labor activist who aimed for district head in city of Gwangju, all have failed to win party nominations.

A long-time public servant in the region, Park is running for a county head post in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, her hometown.

Park’s candidacy is significant because there has never been a woman mayor or woman district heads in Gwangju since the first local elections took place in 1995.

In South Jeolla Province, four provincial governors and some 80 mayors and district heads have served since the 1990s, but only two women have served the positions, and only because their husbands lost their posts after violating laws.

Park, born to a farmer couple in 1955, worked at a small district office of Samho in Yeongam. After three years there, she was transferred to Mokpo, one of the biggest cities in South Jeolla Province, where she served as a public servant for almost 40 years.

Park‘s pledges are mostly economy-focused. They include launching of cable cars in Wolchulsan, a mountain that spans both Gangjin and Yeongam counties in South Jeolla Province, in an effort to bring more tourists and thereby boost the regional economy.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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