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Women take center stage in Korean politics

Female politicians lead major parties into crucial elections

When Grand National Party leader Park Geun-hye met her opposition counterpart Han Myeong-sook earlier this month, photojournalists and cameramen created a frantic scene, trying to best capture the moment.

The next morning, many local newspapers published a picture of the two women smiling at each other, describing it as a “monumental” event that symbolized the opening of a new era for female political leadership in Korea.

Park became interim leader of the GNP on Dec. 19 and Han was elected the chief of the main opposition Democratic United Party about a month later.

“I personally think this is way overdue,” said Rep. Park Young-sun, another female lawmaker in the DUP, referring to the rise of women to the top of major political parties.

“Politics has been one of the toughest areas of Korean society for women to crack,” she said.

Women have been kicking through the glass ceiling in many areas of Korean society over the past decades. But, it was only recently that the phenomenon spread to politics, long regarded as a male domain.

The rise of women politicians comes as political parties suffer through a crisis of confidence amid a series of corruption scandals. Both the GNP and DUP are accused of bribery and vote-buying during their internal leadership races. The GNP is accused of masterminding a cyber attack on the national election watchdog during the Oct. 26 by-elections, in a bid to influence the poll results.

GNP leader Park, daughter of late former President Park Chung-hee and a strong candidate for the next presidency, took the helm of the crisis-hit party, with the task of winning back the hearts of disillusioned voters through sweeping reforms.

Han, the country’s only woman to serve as prime minister, is leading the opposition party’s campaign to retake power from the conservatives in the coming parliamentary and presidential elections. She hopes to be a kingmaker for the liberals, she said.

Aside from the duo, Lee Jung-hee and Sim Sang-jung lead the minority Unified Progressive Party as co-chairs.

The three political parties led by women control a total of 262 seats in the country’s 299-member single unicameral National Assembly.

The DUP’s Park is also part of women power in politics.

The two-term lawmaker came in third in the DUP’s internal leadership race, thus securing a seat in its top decision-making Supreme Council. Han came out with the most votes, becoming its chairwoman.

The DUP, like most other parties in Korea, has a quota system to include at least one female leader in its leadership team. The system sets aside one out of its five elected council seats to a woman, but Rep. Park came in third, only after Han and veteran politician Park Jie-won, earning her own seat without the help of the rule.

Lee Nae-young, professor at Korea University in Seoul, said the public’s desire for new politics was behind the rise of women leaders.

“Encountered with a major crisis, political parties are embracing a shift of paradigm. The Korean political culture has been somewhat manly, often involving head-on confrontations,” he explained.

The public wants leaders who can resolve conflicts through dialogue, negotiations and compromise, rather than resorting to the same old partisan tactics, he said.

Some point out that the high profile of women at the top of party politics doesn’t necessarily mean the glass ceiling has been shattered.

According to the Korea Women’s Development Institute, women’s share in parliament grew from 5.9 percent in the 16th National Assembly, which served the years 2000-2004, to the country’s high of 13.7 percent in the current 18th Assembly.

Despite the rise, the ratio is far below the levels seen in advanced countries. In Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, women hold a third, or up to half, of the parliamentary seats.

Of the 44 female lawmakers that Korea has now, only 14 are district representatives and the rest are proportional representatives.

Still, many are hopeful that the new women leaders of both the ruling and opposition parties could help bring in some positive changes to the way politics is done in Korea.

President Lee said recently that the country’s political culture would be a lot different, if half of the parliamentary seats were taken by women.

“I think that in-house fighting would disappear and so would political corruption. Overall (the political process) would become fairer,” he said.

In the upcoming parliamentary election, both the GNP and DUP are striving to tap into the female talent in a bid to attract more voters with fresh, competitive faces.

The GNP has decided to allot 30 percent of its nomination tickets for district representatives to women, while the DUP set aside 15 percent.

By Lee Sun-young (
Korea Herald Youtube