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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 36-42

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Women and Democratization in the Republic of Korea*

Seungsook Moon

The spectacle of mass street demonstrations against authoritarian regimes by college students, activists, workers, and middle-class citizens in Korea during the late 1980s evoked dramatic images of democracy in its making. Indeed, one of the keywords in the new lexicon of civilian regimes since the inauguration of Kim Young Sam's government in 1993 has been "democratization" (minjuhwa). 1 Yet, to what extent has democratization in contemporary Korea really empowered women who have been marginalized as a social group by the structure of gender? This is an important question to consider since, despite the alluring appeal of democracy as a normative ideal for the body politic, the actual process of democratization in Korea has taken place in a specific sociopolitical context where multiple layers of inequalities have long existed. This article examines this question by focusing on women's participation in civil society and their representation in institutionalized politics in Korea since the late 1980s. It raises two central points concerning the complex relationship between women and democratization. First, democratization in Korea has been largely conservative in that it has maintained the masculinist nature of institutionalized politics. Second, although women are participating in the development of civil society, as is reflected in the revival of autonomous women's movements and associations, and this has generated some positive change in masculinist politics, the change is very unstable. The sociopolitical context continues to be characterized by its hybrid nature with elements of both Confucian governance and liberal institutions at play. These findings suggest that formal democratization is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the empowerment of women (and by implication other feminized social groups).

Democratization and Women's Participation in Civil Society

Ever since De Tocqueville's classic work, Democracy in America (1848), highlighted the centrality of participation in voluntary associations to the development and maintenance of democracy, 2 students of democracy have viewed the proliferation of grassroots organizations as a significant indicator of substantive democratization. Accordingly, democratization can be characterized by the growing representation and participation of formerly marginalized social groups in all aspects of public and private life and the improvement of the overall qualities of their lives. Indeed, the process of formal democratization in Korea, beginning with the political transition from authoritarian rule to electoral democracy, has been accompanied by the development of numerous autonomous women's associations. The Christian Academy, established in 1973, trained the first generation of contemporary Korean feminists through study group activities. 3 These women became founding members of autonomous women's associations. In February 1987, twenty-one of these voluntary associations formed the Korean Women's Associations United (yôsôngdanch'eyônhap). While the number of the KWAU's member organizations has fluctuated somewhat over time, it had a total of 28 member organizations in 2000. 4 Several of the member organizations continue as gatherings of Christian women. 5

The KWAU differed from other preexisting or emerging women's organizations in its initially oppositional stance toward the repressive state and its feminist orientation. It has played a central role in articulating the common goal of gender equality and the specific needs and interests of such diverse groups of women as factory workers, clerical workers, urban housewives, farmers, and the urban poor. 6 Other women's organizations can be categorized as Administered Mass Organizations (AMOs), created by the authoritarian state as its instrument, or as quasi-voluntary associations that were willing to collaborate with the repressive state. 7 The AMOs served as a tool for implementing state policies of population control and economic development and for propagating state ideologies of national security, anticommunism, and nationalism. The quasi-voluntary associations can be situated between the oppositional KWAU and the women's AMOs. A majority of these middle organizations were occupational or religious associations. 8

In the process of democratization, the differences between the KWAU and other less autonomous women's organizations were significantly reduced. The antagonism that existed previously between the KWAU and the state has...


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