May 16 issue -
When the Grand National Party
triumphed in parliamentary by-elections last week, it was more than just a
victory for South Korea's conservative opposition. The win also marked a
milestone in the long march of Korean women toward equality, as it handed a
legislative majority to GNP leader Park Geun Hye, 53, and three other opposition
parties. The results moved Park, the daughter of authoritarian former President
Park Chung Hee, a decisive step closer toward her dream of becoming the first
female president of South Korea—a prospect virtually unimaginable until
Park is riding the crest of a wave—the remarkable surge of South Korean women toward active participation in a society that's always excluded them from positions of power and influence. After enduring generations of second-class treatment, women are suddenly emerging as a driving force not only in the political arena but also in the courts, the media, the business world, even in the military and the world of sports. There's still a long way to go, but their achievements are already transforming Korean society. Just a few weeks before Park's victory, a coalition of feminists and reform-minded men in the South Korean Parliament pushed through the demolition of the traditional Confucian principles (known as hoju) that had dominated the country's legal system for centuries, unceremoniously ending hundreds of years of government-approved discrimination. "I never imagined Korean women would advance so far so fast," says Lee Eun Young, a feminist activist and lawmaker for the center-left Uri Party. "The 21st century belongs to them."
Lee should know. When she attended elite Seoul National University in the 1970s, women were so scarce that there wasn't a single ladies' room on campus. This past —February, by contrast, women at the same university's graduation ceremony took top honors at 11 out of 16 colleges. And those aren't the only impressive numbers going around. The rate of female political participation, measured by the number of female legislators, has more than doubled in the past five years, rising from 6 percent in 2000 to 13 percent now (still lower than in the United States, at 14 percent, but considerably higher than in Japan, with 7 percent). Of 110 judges newly appointed in February, 54, or 49 percent, were women. During the past two years Korea has seen its first female minister of Justice, Supreme Court justice and Constitutional Court justice. The share of women who pass the competitive senior-level civil-servant exam has risen from 2 percent in 1990 to 34 percent last year. "When it comes to women's rights, Korea has achieved in a single generation what Western countries took a century to achieve," says Park Mi Ra, a journalist who founded IF, one of the South's most influential feminist magazines. "Korea is becoming a benchmark for neighboring Asian nations."
There are several reasons for the dramatic rise in female fortunes, but one of the most important is the explosion of grassroots civic activism that's swept South Korea over the past two decades. Women played an important role in the democracy movement that toppled the country's dictators in the 1980s, and since then they've done their best to keep feminism in the forefront of the broader push for change. As the Uri Party's leader, President Roh Moo Hyun has made gender equality a powerful part of his crusade against Korea's old elite.
Another catalyst is education. In the 1970s only 25 percent of South Korean women entered college. Now the number has risen to 72 percent, the highest level in the world. The country's women-only universities are especially influential. Ewha Women's University, with 150,000 alumnae, is the world's largest—followed closely by Sookmyung Women's University, the second largest. Both are more than a century old. Supporters argue that the women-only atmosphere is conducive to confidence-building as well as good academics. "In Korean coed universities, female students are treated differently from male students," says Ewha president Shin In Ryung. "But all-women universities teach females how to compete fairly and squarely with others, something they need in the real world." More than half of the honor and top-grade students at universities are women, although they account for less than half the total number of students.
There has been resistance to some of the changes, especially when reformers took aim at the centuries-old hoju (head of family) system, which banned women from legally representing their households. Under the practice, family members could be represented only by the officially recognized "head of the house"—invariably a man. All members of a family had to bear his surname. Even aged widows were registered under the names of their eldest sons in government-issued family documents, and the children of divorced mothers were not recognized as the children of their stepfathers. Some male lawmakers fought to retain hoju, but the reformers prevailed. Under the new system "each individual will be able to represent herself or himself," says Youn Young Sook, a director-general at the Ministry of Gender Equality, which was created in 2001. Youn says this and other reforms, such as a 1996 law requiring that 30 percent of all government agency employees be women, put South Korea far ahead of Japan and other Asian countries. "By nature, Koreans are more open to changes than their neighboring Asians are."
Glass ceilings still abound. The high-profile appointments of women to select government positions are still more the exception than the rule. Midlevel government positions continue to be monopolized by men. And despite the growing presence of women in business (especially in knowledge-intensive, New Economy-style companies), they're virtually absent from the executive floors of leading South Korean corporations. Women on average are paid 64 percent of what men are paid—and among all women eligible for corporate managerial positions, only 50 percent have jobs, lower than the OECD's average of 56 percent. Korea's feminist movement, say critics, still tends to rely excessively on top-down reforms by intellectuals and political leaders—and not enough on ordinary women lobbying for change from below. "Korea has good systems and laws for greater female power," says Moon You Gyung, a researcher at the Korea Women's Development Institute. "But for the systems and laws to work, women themselves have to change their mind-set first." Maybe having a female president would help complete what is already a dramatic cultural shift.
With Christian Caryl in Tokyo