Where They Stand: The Status of Women in South Korea
Robert E. Darcy, Regents Professor of Political Science and Statistics, Oklahoma State University;Seungsook Moon, associate professor of sociology, Vassar College;Kyung-Ae Park, Korea Foundation Research Chair, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia; Jean R. Renshaw, principal, AJR International Associates; Heisoo Shin, member, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), United Nations; representative, Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan
South Korean women are largely well-educated, engaged in the economy, and blessed with optimal maternal health services. Yet recent World Economic Forum and United Nations reports rank South Korean gender empowerment among the lowest in the developed world. The Asia Program's February 14 event sought to explain these apparent contradictions by looking at the status of women in South Korea's labor force, corporate world, and political realm.
Heisoo Shin of UN-CEDAW, singling out civil society as "the motor" for change in South Korea, sketched the evolution of the nation's women's movement. Korean feminist groups were mostly established in the 1980s, with legislation on domestic violence and women's development beginning in the 1990s and continuing today. Of particular note, according to Shin, is the March 2005 decision of South Korea's Constitutional Court to abolish hoju, a family registry system that identifies the head of household as a male and that obliges family members to be registered under him. The court's decision should improve women's status in family and marriage, according to Shin. What remains, she concluded, is the challenge of changing men's attitudes toward women.
Vassar College's Seungsook Moon addressed what she regards as a gap between law and practice for women in the Korean workplace. The Equal Employment Law (EEL) eliminates labor market discrimination against women and provides maternity and childcare benefits. However, Moon argued, women still suffer from low wages, sexual harassment, and lack of reliable childcare. The EEL's regulation often extends only to large companies. This is insufficient, Moon explained, because many Korean women work in smaller or more informal employment arrangements that elude EEL oversight. Jean R. Renshaw of AJR International Associates highlighted South Korean's small number (5 percent) of women managers, noting that while other nations with few women managers have recently seen increases, South Korea's figures remain static. Worse, expanding opportunities for women in management positions is hampered by Korea's often-secretive and opaque corporate culture. This marginalizing of women amounts to a "waste of human capital," she said, concluding that prospects for change lie more in the enforcement of new laws than the laws per se.
Kyung-Ae Park of the University of British Columbia examined South Korean women's traditional underrepresentation in politics. Park argued that this underrepresentation is rooted in discriminatory attitudes of the political elite (not of voters) and in the tendency for women to enter politics later in life (after their child-rearing years) when they lack the accumulated political experience of their male counterparts. She concluded that electoral mechanisms such as proportional representation and party lists offer the best opportunities for better women's representation. Oklahoma State University's Robert Darcy provided a hopeful assessment of the underrepresentation issue, noting that the presence of quotas in both national assembly and district elections hastens the election of females. Support for women in politics is also discerned in attitudes (recent public opinion does not often cite prejudice against women as a reason for female underrepresentation) and institutions (the Korean Women's Development Institute is government-established and funded, while the Korean League of Women Voters promotes women's political access).
Ultimately, the panel concluded, most South Korean women have the ability and qualifications (both educational and professional) to be successful—a reality that renders their current lack of empowerment particularly troubling, but that also offers hope for the future.
Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Assistant
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more