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Did Yoon change his mind about systemic gender inequality? His top aides say no

At his first major diplomatic event, president gets called out for his male-heavy Cabinet

Yoon’s ministers and vice ministers salute the flag at Prime Minister Han Duck-soo’s inauguration ceremony of Prime on Monday. (Yonhap)
Yoon’s ministers and vice ministers salute the flag at Prime Minister Han Duck-soo’s inauguration ceremony of Prime on Monday. (Yonhap)

When President Yoon Suk-yeol was questioned Saturday about his male-dominated Cabinet, he said that women lacked opportunities to rise to top government posts, and promised more opportunities for women.

While his comments were generic and often repeated by many before him, they appear out of line with his earlier statements on the matter –- that his nominations were made based strictly on merit.

“We haven’t seen a lot of women advancing to senior roles in the public sector, especially in Cabinets. We have a short history of ensuring fair opportunities for women in all sectors. So we’re trying to actively ensure such opportunities for women,” he said.

Saturday is not the first time Yoon was pressed to address the lack of diversity in his administration. But his response to the question, thrown at him during a press conference at his summit with US President Joe Biden in Seoul, was starkly different from the line of logic he typically employs.

As president-elect, Yoon said the two basic qualifications he was looking for were “merit and character.”

“Selections are based primarily on expertise and experience in respective fields,” the presidential office has said on the gender parity of top-level appointments. Of Yoon’s 60 picks for ministers and vice ministers so far, just five are women.

High-level Yoon aides were seen downplaying the president’s acknowledgement of gender imbalance in the Cabinet the days following the news conference.

In an exchange with reporters, one official at the presidential office said the president’s remarks on Saturday do not negate his earlier stance that Korean women face no systemic obstacles today. Another said by opportunities, the president meant that not as many women had been considered.

Political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald that the vast chunk of Yoon’s appointees are Seoul National University-educated men in their 50s and 60s -- “a description that fits the president himself.”

“He didn’t keep his campaign promise about forming a younger Cabinet,” Rhee said.

He said Yoon’s touted principles of merit did not explain why he found so few qualified women.

“His Cabinet members face a tough test as he continues to insist that he is filling the posts on a merit-based system. They have to prove their competence and show why they were handed the job over all the others that could have had it,” he said.

As for what prompted the apparent shift in the president’s tone and whether it was genuine, Rhee said: “He was put on the spot, and you could tell he was improvising.”

“Yoon promised change, but words need to translate into action. We will learn if he meant what he said in the next round of Cabinet nominations,” Rhee added.

Sociology professor Sul Dong-hoon of Jeonbuk National University pointed out that while Yoon cited a dearth of opportunities as the reason why his first Cabinet has few women, it was him who was in the position to give them those opportunities.

“He was narrating and giving commentaries like he had nothing to do with how he ended up with such a Cabinet, the making of which he is responsible. I don’t think we saw him taking accountability,” he said.

But maybe it’s unfair to blame a newly inaugurated president, who inherits institutional inequalities, for failing to appoint a more diverse Cabinet, said Lee Bok-sil, who served as gender equality vice minister in 2013-14.

“If you look at the statistics through the years, the lack of political representation of women and other minorities is not new or unique to Yoon administration. Inclusion and diversity have always been a weakness in our governments,” she said.

“When Moon exited the presidency, there were four women ministers in his Cabinet. I don’t think that’s much better than Yoon’s three.”

Yang Seung-ham, an emeritus professor of political science and diplomacy at Yonsei University, said, “Our presidents need to do a better job of building a Cabinet that better reflects all of Korea,” 

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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