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[Lee Kyong-hee] Gender war? No, it’s a deeper conundrum

Amid the dynamic race to the March 9 presidential election, the fates of two women test our moral compass. One vanished soon after she appeared, and the other virtually stays on track, her mystic presence piquing voter curiosity in novel ways with potential consequences.

Last month, when Cho Dong-youn joined the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s campaign committee for Lee Jae-myung as co-chair, her accomplished military career fired up my imagination. A 38-year-old retired Army major and professor of military studies with a specialty in aerospace and defense obviously was not a typical political operative. A graduate of the Korea Military Academy, she continued her studies at top US universities while climbing the ranks in the ROK Army. I expected her to infuse the otherwise stereotypical stumping with a fresh breeze, if not a storm.

While media hype surrounded the first outside recruit for the liberal frontrunner’s campaign, right-wing YouTuber and former lawmaker Kang Yong-seok insisted that she resign. The reason: she had a child born out of wedlock. By the time Cho succumbed to hostile uproar and stepped down three days later, a large part of her private life had been made public, including the names, birthdays and photos of her two children.

I do not know exactly why, as media reports said, she lost a lawsuit filed by her former husband in 2014. I am not interested in her private life either, much less her sexual life. But I believe she didn’t have to cede her campaign post. She deserved an opportunity to prove herself. If she had fulfilled her responsibilities, and later contended for a public office, that might well be the time to judge her virtues and values.

In a larger context, is a behind-the-stage staffer fair game for as much scrutiny as a political candidate or public official? Everyone has experiences that they would rather not have. Some may be relevant to operations at hand. Others may be fodder for cheap innuendos. How much privacy should be respected? Who decides?

Ambiguity also surrounds Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate of the conservative main opposition People Power Party. He is being asked to explain his curator-entrepreneur wife, Kim Keon-hee, who allegedly committed plagiarism in research papers and inflated her career credentials to get teaching jobs at several universities and colleges. There are also rumors about her private life before marrying Yoon in 2012. In addition, her mother has been convicted for illegal business activities.

Yoon keeps ignoring the allegations and rumors; he flatly denies them or simply brushes them aside. Given that he is a self-proclaimed champion of criminal justice and the nation’s top prosecutor until recently, his indifference looks odd at best and dishonest at worst. It may be construed that, as a political novice who changed his job just months ago, he is probably too busy overcoming his “daily gaffes” and memorizing speeches.

Still, one of Yoon’s campaign promises is the removal of the Office of the First Lady from Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office and residence. When asked why in a press interview, he replied, “The wife of president is a mere family member [of the president]. It is an extralegal status and it’s not right to continue the customary practices.”

Korea isn’t the only country that does not define the role of the first lady by law. I do not know of any country doing so. In the United States as well, the role of the first lady is not codified or officially delineated. But as everybody knows, she figures prominently in the country’s political and social life. Notably since the 20th century, American first ladies have increasingly promoted specific causes that are usually not politically divisive, such as environmental protection, volunteerism, women’s rights, mental disabilities, childhood literacy and obesity.

In Korea, most first ladies have tended to be relatively inactive socially. And yet, Yuk Young-soo, the wife of former President Park Chung-hee, and Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former President Kim Dae-jung, are respected for their exemplary roles: Yuk looked after the disadvantaged and Lee led women’s rights movement. In this light, Yoon had better reconsider his pledge if it was trotted out to evade the controversy surrounding his wife.

He also should seriously rethink his latest proposal to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. It would be wiser to restructure the ministry in ways to handle a long-term agenda from a broader perspective of state governance, rather than hastily appeasing anti-feminist young male voters.

The older generations are obliged to understand the despair of young males who feel they are discriminated against in the tight job market. At the same time, it must also be admitted that an implacable glass ceiling persists. Korea has the highest gender wage gap among the wealthy countries and women’s representation remains among the lowest in decision-making positions of government and businesses. The scathing conflict needs to be addressed with efforts toward gender harmony, not confrontation.

Buying the votes of the discontented young men in their 20s must be the most pressing need for Yoon and his hurriedly adopted party. They must know that, otherwise, their shared dream of the opposition party winning the presidency will likely be shattered.

Much of the electorate, as the polls show, also hopes to see a transfer of power. But the People Power Party had better ask itself how far it has come in the past five years since its president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and ousted for abusing power and mishandling state affairs in collusion with a secret confidante. It needs to ask why the electorate has a creeping sense of deja vu in the runup to the crucial March election.

It is a pity that neither the main opposition party nor its presidential nominee seems to be aware that they are far from being prepared to govern, let alone resolve their own ceaseless internal rifts. 

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (