By Juni Kim
Against the backdrop of South Korea’s dramatic parliamentary elections last month, female representation in South Korea’s highest legislative body took a small but positive step forward. Fifty-one women were elected to the National Assembly, which represents the largest number of female representatives in both total number and percentage (17%) in South Korean history. Although the proportional female representation in the National Assembly lags behind the world average (22.8%) and the Asian region (19.2%), recent history shows significant progress for South Korean female legislators.
Although there is obvious room for improvement, female representation has come a long way from the lone woman representative elected out of 200 potential seats in the first National Assembly elections in 1948. Growth in female representation remained virtually stagnant for the next fifty years with proportional female representation never breaking above 6%. It was not until the 17th National Assembly elections in 2000 that noticeable increases occurred. Since then, female representation has continued to increase steadily. The figure below reveals how female representation in total number increased over five-fold from 1996 to 2016.
The sudden increase of female representation over the past twenty years is typically attributed to gender quotas that were first implemented by the Korean government starting in 2000. Despite some initial issues with non-compliance, stronger enforcement measures under electoral reforms in 2002 and 2004 brought about the dramatic increase of female representatives from the 2000 elections to the 2004 elections.
The implementation of gender quotas is not without its fair share of controversy, however. Political parties have been criticized for dragging their feet on responsive implementation or placing female candidates on unwinnable tickets. Parties have also been accused of misusing the mixed electoral system to avoid proper quota compliance. Only after persistent lobbying by women’s groups did political parties take quota compliance seriously.
Nevertheless, gender quotas have made a positive and noticeable impact in female representation. Ki-young Shin of Ozhanomizu University noted that the increased presence of female representatives would hopefully lead to broader sustained changes. She stated, “Quota women gain more confidence and resources to run for election again, while parties and voters revise their perceptions regarding women’s capabilities as legislators.” She also noted that the election of first-term female representatives due to gender quotas leads to incumbency advantages for possible reelection bids.
Challenges still remain for female representatives even after successful election campaigns. Legislative seats are consistently and widely contested in the South Korean National Assembly. Forty-four percent of representatives elected in 2016 are in their first term and only 16% are in their fourth or longer term. Of the current female representatives, 53% were elected this year and only 8% (Choo Mi-ae, Na Kyung-won, Park Young-sun, Cho Baesook) have served for four terms or longer. Since gender quotas were implemented relatively recently, these numbers may not be telling of the true volatility of seats held by women compared to men. Female representatives seeking reelection also require consistent party support, which has not always been the case. Ki-young Shin noted “a majority of women involuntarily leave their political careers due to the failure to obtain a party nomination in the candidate selection process for the following elections.”
Significant increases in female representation in the South Korean National Assembly have occurred over the past 20 years, but continued support from political parties, civic groups, and ultimately the general public will be needed for female representatives to have a larger sustained voice in the National Assembly.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Moses Park and Seho Park, Interns at KEI, also contributed to this blog. The views expressed here are the authors alone.
Photo from lets.book’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.