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The Peninsula

Women Leading Korea

Published January 30, 2012
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: South Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

For the first time in Korean politics, two women are leading the ruling and opposition parties.  Two other women became the chairpersons for the most liberal party in Korea.  In January 2012, Korea was accepted to chair the United Nations Women, which promotes gender equality and empowerment of women.  Also recently, the South Korean ambassador to the U.N. was appointed as the president of the U.N. Women board.  Developed countries including Japan are talking about the improved institutionalization of Korean female leadership and the elevation of Korea as a global symbol of women’s empowerment.  What explains this surge and has Korea entered into a new era of female political leadership?

Throughout history, Korea has had a small but meaningful line of female political leaders such as Queen Seondeok (57 BC-935 AD), Queen Jindeok, and Queen Jinseong of the Silla dynasty; Queen Dowager Honae of Koryo dynasty (918-1393); and Queen Min and Queen Yun of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910). All of the female rulers, however, had the role of a “queen mother,” whereby their political participation depended on being a mother or wife of past and future kings. In the contemporary history of Korea, women found their political voice during the emancipation movement against the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). However, women’s political activism during this period was on an individual basis, mostly stemming from nationalistic rightist movement.

It was not until the democracy movement in the 1980s that women began to organize as a collective and became a bipartisan movement. In 2000, the quota system was introduced to increase diversity in Korean politics, whereby women must account for over 50% of proportional representation candidates for municipal and provincial councils, and political parties must make efforts to ensure that women make up at least 30% of nominated candidates for local constituencies in the general and local level elections. The first National Assembly of Korea from 1948-1950 consisted of 199 men and 1 woman. Since then, representation of women has been on a steady rise from 3% in the 15th Assembly, 5.3% in the 16th Assembly, 12.7% in the 17th Assembly with the introduction of the quota system, to 13.7% in the currently 18th Assembly.

Although women faced hardships in breaking the glass ceiling, they also faced opportunities in times of political crisis and uncertainties. The notion of change, justice, and anti-corruption against authoritarianism was on the forefront of the mind of the Koreans during the late 1980s and 1990s. Desire for clean and moral path to politics, along with the advancement of democracy and egalitarianism provided an opportune moment for female political leaders to advance their position.

For example, both the Grand National Party (GNP) and the Uri Party appointed women as the spokesperson during the impeachment crisis of President Roh. Ms. Park Geun-hye was elected as the GNP party leader during a difficult time in 2004, and again recently in December 2011. Ms. Han Myung-sook was appointed as prime minister after President Roh’s impeachment crisis and declining popular support, and recently became the leader of the Democratic United Party (DUP) in January 2012.  Their leadership comes at a time when both parties are battling identity.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Korea Times photo by Ko Young-kwon.

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