South Korea’s youngest member of parliament believes the National Assembly should be more inclusive and represent the diversity of the Korean public, not just middle-aged men.
“They say the National Assembly should resemble the citizens, but that’s not what the current parliament does,” said 29-year-old Rep. Ryu Ho-jeong of the progressive Justice Party in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“Currently, 80 percent of the members are male, and those in their 50s are the mainstream.”
Currently, the average age of the 300 lawmakers is 55, and 243 are male. Twelve lawmakers are in their 30s. Ryu is the only one in her 20s.
“I think young politicians can relate to young people’s feelings a little more and represent them better. There should be more young politicians.”
She said younger politicians should account for about 30 percent of the National Assembly if it is to better represent those in their 20s and 30s.
“Now, it is 4 percent. It’s a long way off.”
Ryu went on to say that the minimum age for lawmakers should be lowered to make it consistent with the voting age, which is 18. Currently, only people 25 and over can run for the parliament.
“Unless there is a special reason, I don’t think there is any need to block the qualification to run for election by setting it so high,” she said.
People may question young candidates’ abilities and qualifications, but the election results would tell, she said.
“I don’t know the result, but I think (running for office) is the right of a citizen.”
Ryu also believes the parliament should be ready to embrace sexual minorities. To date, there have been no lawmakers who were openly non-heterosexual.
“Do you think there is not a single sexual minority among the 300 members? I don’t think so. They just don’t come out,” she said.
“In fact, the Justice Party also had an LGBT candidate at the party’s primary for proportional representation. The candidate just didn’t get many votes.”
But Ryu believes the public perception of sexual minorities is changing, although survey results are somewhat contradictory.
In a survey carried out last year and released by Statistics Korea in March, 57 percent of Koreans indicated a lack of tolerance toward homosexuals in their everyday lives.
A survey conducted by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, however, hinted at a more accepting public. In that survey, 87.7 percent of respondents agreed that anti-discrimination laws should be enacted to ban discrimination of various kinds, including discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, race and sexual orientation.
“We are doing our best to pass anti-discrimination bills during the 21st Assembly. If the bill is passed, perhaps we can see more sexual diversity in the parliament.”
For Ryu, who describes herself as “someone who is the farthest from average in the parliament,” the assembly is still a tough workplace. She is often cut off by other lawmakers when speaking or addressed with abrupt terms such as “Eoi” or “Ya” -- similar to “Hey,” but inappropriate for the workplace in Korea.
“But I do believe the Assembly is changing, although slowly.”
Ryu has made headlines on several occasions by wearing pink or yellow dresses to plenary sessions. But she said the other lawmakers didn’t care about her dresses. The viral pictures were attempts by some internet users to attack her politically, she said.
“Compared with the strong backlash against Rhyu Si-min in the past, the Assembly has changed.”
In 2003, when former Rep. Rhyu stood at the podium in white pants and a T-shirt, other lawmakers strongly protested, saying it was “impolite,” and some even walked out.
Ryu, who recently proposed a bill to ease regulations on tattoos, is now working on a revision to strengthen punishment for sex crimes.
“Currently, sex offenders are punished only when there is serious violence and threats. However, rape can occur through hierarchy or power even when there is no violence or intimidation.”
Under the law, sex crimes caused by hierarchy in the workplace can be recognized only if the victims are employed legally under formal contracts. But she said the law has loopholes.
“Such crimes can take place in settings where employers and employees do not make contracts -- such as in the sports community, religion, schools and the culture and arts industry.”
Citing a sexual violence counseling center, Ryu said more than 70 percent of sexual violence is committed in situations where there is no obvious violence or threat.
“Many victims can’t resist even if there is no violence or threat. I think we need to widen the fence of the law so that more victims can be protected under the law,” she said.
By Shin Ji-hye (email@example.com