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Introduction: Gender and Politics in Contemporary Korea

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2014
pp. 245-255 | 10.1353/jks.2014.0024

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Introduction:
Gender and Politics in Contemporary Korea

The election of Park Geun-hye (Pak Kŭnhye) as South Korea’s first female president reveals fascinating contradictions about the state of gender and politics in contemporary South Korea. For some, Park’s victory on December 19, 2012, signified a historic achievement in a country with one of the worst records on gender equality in the world. The same year that Park won the presidency, South Korea ranked a dismal 108th out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (GGI), which measures the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities in education, health, welfare, the labor market, and political empowerment.1 Although the most contentious election issues focused on national security and economic issues, rather than ongoing gender discrimination and inequality, news outlets called attention to the gendered significance of Park’s victory in a “deeply patriarchal part of Asia” and a country that ranks among the lowest in the world in gender equity.2

Park’s victory as head of the conservative Saenuri Tang (New Frontier Party) also underscored the continued stronghold of old guard anticommunist politics, represented most acutely by her connection to her father and former president Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏnghŭi), who seized power in a 1961 military coup and ruled continuously until 1979. By symbolizing the kind of leadership associated with her father’s heavy-handed rule during the country’s rapid industrialization, [End Page 245] Park Geun-hye’s popular appeal seemed to have less to do with her status as a woman than as her “father’s daughter.” As the New York Times put it, few saw Park’s election “as likely to significantly change the lot of women anytime soon in a traditional society where, despite some strong inroads in business and government, women’s most important job is still considered to be raising children.”3 Even the supporters of liberal opposition candidate Moon Jae-in (Mun Chaein) of the Democratic United Party attempted at first to undermine Park Geun-hye’s legitimacy by questioning female leadership. As a single, unmarried woman, Park Geun-hye was criticized for departing from the imagined ideal of a self-sacrificing South Korean woman devoted to the care of her husband, family, and the nation.4 Moon’s camp even adopted a blatantly masculinist slogan, “Republic of Korea’s Man” to portray Moon as “someone who has never hesitated to sacrifice as a son, a husband, a breadwinner, and a South Korean, a courageous believer in democracy, and a responsible and stable public servant.”5

We begin this thematic issue of the Journal of Korean Studies with Park Geun-hye’s presidency not to misconstrue her rise as a sign of women’s status in South Korea but to highlight the need to adopt more sophisticated conceptual frameworks for analyzing the dynamics of gender and politics in contemporary South and North Korea. Certainly since the mid-1990s, women have made steady gains in the formal political sphere, including winning greater levels of female representation in Republic of Korea government administration and the National Assembly and securing key constitutional reforms and legislative policies promoting women’s rights and gender equality.6 The creation of the cabinet-level Ministry of Gender Equality in 2001—reorganized in 2005 to become the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family—also signaled a partial actualization of the aims of the women’s movement and served as an indication of the cooperation between the government and the women’s movement. However, despite the success of state feminism—that is, the promotion of gender equality in law, policymaking, and governance at multiple levels—there have been limited gains for women when it comes to the socioeconomic sphere.7 As Seungsook Moon astutely put it, “the rise of Park’s political star echoes the ironic situation of women politicians elsewhere (such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Sarah Palin), promoted by conservative or leftist parties that have rarely prioritized or supported gender equality in their policymaking and implementation.”8

Gender studies and feminist scholars have argued that gains...