The end of the line for Park Geun-hye, the first and only woman president of South Korea, was feared to have a restraining effect on female politics for some time. Yet, new possibilities are seen for a surge of female politicians, with some new faces drawing the spotlight in the administration and legislature with remarkable individual talent and prowess.
Female voices rise in our society amid the increasingly combative atmosphere of the #MeToo movement. Or conversely, women’s growing self-confidence in their capability proven through job competition despite systematic disadvantages is driving them to greater assertiveness in the public arena, including in politics.
YouTube is flooded with videos showing recent episodes in which female politicians who have earned celebrity-level recognition with well-prepared logic, articulate speech and calm composure leave their once condescending male opponents struggling in National Assembly debates and hearings.
Those new stars include Jeon Hui-gyeong of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, Sohn Hye-won of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, Lee Un-ju of the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party and Lee Jeong-mi of the Justice Party. Another Justice Party member, Sim Sang-jung, who led the progressive party before Lee, has earned respect from both the right and left for her straight ideological stand and refined manner.
In the administration are Kim Hyun-mi, the minister of land, infrastructure and transport, Yoo Eun-hae, the deputy premier and education minister, and Jin Sun-mi, the minister of gender equality and family. Yoo, who had a hard time in an Assembly confirmation hearing for her rather modest resume and improprieties in household affairs, has taken determined steps on the issue of private kindergartens and other problems poorly handled by her predecessor Kim Sang-gon.
Kim Hyun-mi’s new housing supply program has quickly cooled the property market, or perhaps she was just lucky, as apartment prices in the metropolitan area showed a clear sign of going down these past weeks. Jin, a human rights lawyer-turned-Assemblywoman, is recognized for her efforts to change the hitherto decorative image of her ministry. These ministers are currently among the most watched members of Moon Jae-in’s Cabinet.
First lady Kim Jung-sook has become a noticeable factor in the politics of President Moon. After a year and a half in Cheong Wa Dae, analysts evaluate her as an asset as well as a liability. She has loomed large around President Moon, as she has never failed to accompany her husband on overseas tours, often outshining her modest spouse with her colorful attire and big smile.
When President Moon flew to Washington last May on a difficult mission to save the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, after Trump unilaterally canceled it, Kim Jung-sook was at his side. Cyberspace and social media platforms were struck with a flurry of negative comments on the first lady’s inappropriate and unnecessary junket.
Four months after the presidential couple made a state visit to New Delhi, the first lady made yet another official visit to India this time on her own. Her use of the Air Force Two aircraft displaying the presidential emblem on the trip drew criticism from opposition quarters that she was bestowed excessive privilege. Cheong Wa Dae said she made the trip on behalf of her husband on a mission to deepen bilateral relations with India; hence she was justified to use the special military aircraft.
She went to Ayodhya, northern India, and attended the groundbreaking of a public park dedicated to a legendary princess of an ancient kingdom in the region who, according to the Samgukyusa Korean history book, came to Korea via China in the 1st century and became the queen of the Gaya Kingdom. The facility is to become the symbol of growing ties between Korea and India, Cheong Wa Dae said.
Kim Jung-sook’s Nov. 4-7 India tour was the first time in 16 years that a first lady made a solo visit to a foreign country. Lee Hee-ho, wife of President Kim Dae-jung, visited the US in 2000 to attend a national breakfast prayer meeting in Washington and receive a social services award from the University of Southern California. Just one month earlier, Melania Trump made her first solo trip overseas as the first lady of the US, visiting four nations in Africa.
It is a significant coincidence that we have a first lady with an outgoing character at a time when we are going to hear more female voices in Assembly chambers, the Cabinet meeting hall and in the corridors of courthouses and prosecutors’ offices, as well as in street protests. Yet, the seven decades of the republic’s history have established a tradition of low profile in politics with our honorable first ladies.
Gong Dok-kwi, wife of President Yun Po-sun who was ousted following the May 1961 coup, and Lee Hee-ho had social eminence in her own right. But they and other first ladies from Francesca Rhee, wife of the first president, through the last one, Kim Yoon-ok, wife of Lee Myung-bak, passed their time at Cheong Wa Dae in quiet routines, engaging only in the usual charity activities.
Park Geun-hye turned Cheong Wa Dae into a lifeless monastery, opening her living quarters only to her female confidante Choi Soon-sil. Kim Jung-sook must now wish to return the big house to a place where creative policies are discussed, leaders engage in liberal communication and, more than anything else, humanly compassion abounds after four years of absence.
Yet, she must first understand that the mood in both the official and private quarters of Cheong Wa Dae cannot but reflect the realities outside. While she was flying in Air Force Two on her solo visit to India and shoveled earth at the site of the memorial park, two former masters of the presidential mansion were in prison uniforms at two penitentiaries in suburban Seoul. In the meantime, the number of protesters that appear at the legal limit of 100 meters from the walls of Cheong Wa Dae grows day by day.
Former presidents’ wives used to say that they were the opposition members inside the Blue House and people liked the idea. Yet, Koreans may have to accept, if reluctantly, that their first lady cannot remain unnoticed in the big house for five years at a time when female power surges outside. By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as chief of the Korea Overseas Information Service in the 2000s. -- Ed.