After Rep. Yong Hye-in, 31, of the Basic Income Party, brought her 2-month-old son to her workplace on July 5, her photos went viral on social media.
On the day, she held a press conference to urge the passage of her bill that would allow a lawmaker to enter a plenary session with an infant who needs nursing. Under the current law, only lawmakers, the prime minister, state council members and those authorized by the assembly speaker are allowed.
When her photos made headlines, opinions were divided. Some have shown support to Yong for her moves to strengthen women’s rights in political participation while others accuse her of bringing a baby to work and demanding preferential treatment for politicians.
“I was surprised for the attention and controversies as they were more than I thought,” Yong told The Korea Herald.
“But I soon realized this could be a chance,” said the leader of the nation’s progressive minor party.
The same bill, which was first proposed by Rep. Shin Bo-ra in 2018, did not gain much attention. But this time, after Yoon’s press conference came under the spotlight, she was able to persuade 60 lawmakers, including the floor leaders of the ruling and opposition parties, to participate in the bill.
“When I visited the floor leaders, both of them showed support. I didn’t see lawmakers who strongly oppose it. The bill looks set to be passed during the 21st assembly without much difficulty.”
Yong has denied the speculations that the bill was devised to give special treatment only for politicians. She believes this is more related to female political participation and suffrage.
“(Under the current political setting) when parenting and parliamentary activities collide, mother politicians have no choice but to choose child care. This is like telling a woman not to participate in politics.”
Many countries allow mother politicians to bring their babies to work. In the US, Australia, New Zealand and the European Parliament, politicians can enter a plenary session with young children and breastfeed.
“In those countries, female participation in politics is higher,” she said.
According to the latest OECD data as of 2019, the percentage of female parliamentarians in those countries was mostly higher than in South Korea.
The portion of female politicians in Sweden and Finland was 47.3 percent and 47 percent each. Spain, France and Portugal showed 41.1 percent, 39.7 percent and 35.7 percent, respectively. In New Zealand and Australia, the portion was 40 percent and 30 percent.
In more politically conservative countries, Korea and Japan, the portion of female politicians was 17.1 percent and 10.2 percent, each. In Japan, a female politician was kicked out of a conference by her colleague for bringing her baby in 2017.
Politicians’ parenting issue has not been much of an issue in Korea’s male-dominated assembly where so far only three politicians have become mothers during tenure.
The first politician who gave birth was Jang Ha-na in 2015, who did not take any maternity leave. The next one was Shin Bo-ra in 2018, who took 45 days of maternity leave. She asked for access to a plenary session with her baby but was rejected by an assembly speaker. The third is Yong, who took 60 days off.
“I hope the next mother politician can have longer maternity leave,” she said.
In Korea, there is no maternity leave for lawmakers because they are not considered workers under the Labor Standards Act. So Shin and Yong took days off by asking an assembly speaker for permission of absence for a plenary session.
Overseas, when female politicians give birth, there are more options, such as appointing a proxy or adopting remote voting besides maternity leave. But Korea has a long way to go.
“Korea’s assembly has been very slow in adopting electronic or remote voting systems. Appointing a proxy is also not easy because Korea is more politician-centered instead of party-centered like in Europe.”
Having said that, Yong believes the nation’s conservative assembly is changing.
“I believe controversies surrounding brining a baby to the assembly or politicians’ maternity leaves are a good sign that it is changing,” she said.
“Changes take place because, I believe, more young people participate in politics and they put new agenda on the table for discussion.”
Currently, out of the 300 lawmakers, a total of 13 lawmakers are in their 20s and 30s, the highest number in the nation’s political history. There were three in the 20th National Assembly.
The young politicians raise more liberal issues, such as gender equality, basic income, environment and animal rights.
Yong is now working to devise bills to increase male participation in child care, prevent women’s career breaks, reduce gender wage gaps and reduce the burden on individuals in pregnancy and childbirth.
“Thanks to the attention and controversies, I believe my next bills related to women and parenting will gain more attention in the assembly.”
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org