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[KH Explains] Ministry for feminists? Pledge to abolish gender ministry reignites debate

Poll shows 5 out of 10 opt for abolishment of Ministry of Gender Equality and Family

Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party announces the pledge to abolish the Gender Equality ministry, in a two-word Facebook post on Saturday. (Yoon Suk-yeol's Facebook)
Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party announces the pledge to abolish the Gender Equality ministry, in a two-word Facebook post on Saturday. (Yoon Suk-yeol's Facebook)

The idea of abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has reemerged as a hot topic, after presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party proposed it as an election pledge.

When the conservative party candidate made the simple pledge in plain words, “Abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family,” via Facebook on Saturday without further elaboration, it immediately drew criticism from rivals as a move to woo male voters in their 20s.

Putting aside the political intentions, the existence of the ministry has been in question for over a decade, and The Korea Herald has taken a look into what the issue is in the controversy.

Q. What is the controversy surrounding the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family?

The name of the ministry in Korean literally translates to “Ministry of Women and Family.” Established in 2001, the ministry has often come under fire for its name as well as its role focused on the assistance of women and their rights, and has sometimes been accused of underperformance.

A couple of days after his Facebook pledge, Yoon said he made the proposal because he has found that a lot of people are disappointed in the ministry “for failing to play the role expected of it.”

Yoon also said he plans to establish new ministries to handle social affairs overall, and ensured no vacancies in the administration.

Lawmakers who stand in opposition labeled Yoon’s proposal as a scheme to draw support from male voters in their 20s, as it came amid falling support ratings in the age group. Their withdrawal was also seen as a factor in Yoon’s ratings falling behind that of ruling party counterpart Lee Jae-myung.

While the liberal bloc says the ministry should remain, the ruling party’s presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung did state the need to change the name of the ministry to embrace a wider range of social groups.

Over his rival’s abolition pledge on Monday, Lee said Yoon should provide more than just his opposing stance to the ministry, and deliver an alternative plan.

On the same day, the ministry said it planned to change its name to add “Youth” to show its commitment to handle teen-related issues.

Q. What is the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family?

It was in 2001 that the country first established the Ministry of Gender Equality -- or Ministry of Women in Korean -- to reflect rising calls for the government to take action to promote women’s rights.

The ministry has undergone several changes to its name and status, becoming the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2010.

The ministry is in charge of women’s policies and improvement of women’s status, as well as youth- and family-related policies. It also oversees issues related to multicultural families, according to Article 42 of the Government Organization Act.

One of the major feats of the ministry is the 2008 abolition of the traditional patriarchal family registration system, which had required all family members to register under a male family head.

Annually, the ministry receives some 0.2 percent of the government budget. According to the ministry, a budget of 1.4 trillion won ($1.17 billion) is planned for this year, which is 0.23 percent of the total government budget of 60.4 trillion won. About 300 public officials work there.

As the country has seen gender-related conflict escalate in recent years, the ministry has often become a subject of criticism for those questioning its purpose.

The ministry has also come under fire for political bias, such as when it kept quiet on sexual abuse cases by the late former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don. Both are figures from the liberal ruling bloc.

Park took his own life in July 2020 after he was accused of sexually harassing a secretary. Oh was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual assault in the workplace, and is awaiting a ruling on his appeal on Jan. 19.

Q. What is the discussion in the political arena?

Yoon’s pledge sparked dispute between politicians. In a radio interview, Won Hee-ryong, the policy chief for Yoon’s campaign, compared the abolition of the ministry to “pulling out a decayed tooth.”

“It is right to disband an entity that takes sides in sexual abuse cases favorably to their political stances and fuels gender conflict,” Won said in a radio interview Tuesday.

In the joint interview, Rep. Park Yong-jin of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who also serves as a campaign committee chief for Lee Jae-myung, dismissed this argument, saying the opposition bloc is “trying to pull out a tooth without knowing whether it is decayed or not.”

“If there have been weaknesses (at the ministry), efforts should be made to fill that gap and for improvement, to expand its role in promoting women’s rights and support for those in need,” Rep. Park said.

Rep. Jin Sun-mee of the ruling Democratic Party, who previously served as the gender equality minister, expressed concerns that the discussion of abolition should not be used as an electioneering tactic.

“I feel heavy-hearted. ... I believe the ministry’s role will be expanded to support and protect all of the weak. I hope the discussion is carried out for the people to really think about the roles and how to maximize the effects of the policies,” Rep. Jin said in a radio interview Wednesday.

“What benefits women benefits men, and what benefits men benefits women.”

In a recent survey from local pollster Realmeter, 51.9 percent of respondents agreed on the abolishment of the Gender Equality Ministry, while 38.5 percent were opposed. Some 9.6 percent did not have a position.

By gender, 64 percent of men supported the abolishment and 29.8 percent opposed. Among women, 40 percent agreed to the abolishment and 47.1 percent disagreed.

The poll, commissioned by YTN, was conducted from Monday to Tuesday to 1,011 adults. 

For more information regarding the survey results, visit the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission homepage.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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