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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 34-35

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Seung-kyung Kim and Miranda Schreurs

This edition of The Good Society focuses on the growing strength of civil society in East Asia and how democratization affects and has been affected by women. It continues the discussion that was begun in the previous edition of The Good Society (Volume 11, Number 2).

The growth of civil society in China, Japan, and Korea in the past decade has been remarkable. It is transforming decision-making process and giving greater voice to citizens vis-à-vis the state. Given that this is a region where "strong states" have been the norm, the emergence of vibrant citizens' groups is a trend to be watched. Not only are civil society groups altering domestic decision-making processes, they are also influencing regional politics. The growth of civil society is building new bridges among China, Japan, and Korea, countries which for historical reasons have little experience with cooperation on regional problem-solving. Thus, it can be argued that there has been a deepening of democracy in Japan and Korea and an opening of the political space in Communist China.

Yet, while democratization is providing citizens with greater voice in the political systems of East Asia, women remain under-represented in political and economic positions. Moreover, they are the ones who are being hit the hardest by the economic problems facing Japan and Korea.

The democratization of Korea in the past decade has been truly remarkable, but has it really empowered women in this traditionally male dominated society? Seungsook Moon examines various women's associations. She shows that while some were created by the authoritarian state as tools to implement state policies of population control and economic development or to espouse state ideologies of national security and anticommunism others, like the Korean Women's Associations United, were more autonomous and struggled against the repressive state. The KWAU called for gender equality and attention to the specific needs of diverse groups of women. Since the democratization process began, the antagonism that existed between the KWAU and the state has been replaced by negotiation, and some successes have been achieved. In February 2000, the Korean National Assembly passed a bill requiring that political parties respect a 30 percent rule for women candidates running for the 46 national assembly seats reserved for proportional representation (not quite 17 percent of total assembly seats). Yet, the law has not been observed by the main political parties. Efforts to expand women's participation in local politics have also met with very limited success. Moon concludes that Korea holds on to a masculinist politics, a feature of its conservative democratization and a legacy of its experience with rapid economic development. The authoritarian, developmental state, she argues, "commanded the economy and the populace to build a strong (masculine) nation, once feminized by imperialism and colonialism, through economic development." Formal democratization has occurred in Korea, but masculinist politics continues to hinder women's representation in the political sphere. This is despite the central role played by women in the democratization process.

Seung-kyung Kim and John Finch's piece builds on this gender theme. They argue that the Asian Financial Crisis or what they prefer to call the "IMF economic crisis" caused widespread unemployment in Korea that hit women particularly hard. Korean corporations can be viewed as Confucian-inspired organizations that embody both a kind of paternalism towards labor and a gender-bias towards men. Women workers are typically temporary, low status members. They show that throughout the financial crisis, companies laid off disproportionately large numbers of women, a fact that prompted women's organizations to express concern. In one example, they show that when the Hyundai Motor Company's announcement that it planned to lay off a large [End Page 34] share of its workforce resulted in wide-spread strikes, government mediators helped work out a deal that would restrict the number of workers laid off. Little attention went to the fact that the unfortunate few who were laid off included the entire female cafeteria staff. Yet, there is another side to the story as well. In...


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