Rising to the Top; after Enduring Decades of Discrimination, South Korean Women Are Surging into Positions of Power and Influence

By Lee, B. J.; Caryl, Christian | Newsweek International, May 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

Rising to the Top; after Enduring Decades of Discrimination, South Korean Women Are Surging into Positions of Power and Influence


Lee, B. J., Caryl, Christian, Newsweek International


Byline: B. J. Lee (With Christian Caryl in Tokyo)

When the Grand National Party triumphed in parliamentary by-elections last week, it was more than just a victory for South Korea's conservative opposition. The win also marked a milestone in the long march of Korean women toward equality, as it handed a legislative majority to GNP leader Park Geun Hye, 53, and three other opposition parties. The results moved Park, the daughter of authoritarian former President Park Chung Hee, a decisive step closer toward her dream of becoming the first female president of South Korea--a prospect virtually unimaginable until recently.

Park is riding the crest of a wave--the remarkable surge of South Korean women toward active participation in a society that's always excluded them from positions of power and influence. After enduring generations of second-class treatment, women are suddenly emerging as a driving force not only in the political arena but also in the courts, the media, the business world, even in the military and the world of sports. There's still a long way to go, but their achievements are already transforming Korean society. Just a few weeks before Park's victory, a coalition of feminists and reform-minded men in the South Korean Parliament pushed through the demolition of the traditional Confucian principles (known as hoju ) that had dominated the country's legal system for centuries, unceremoniously ending hundreds of years of government-approved discrimination. "I never imagined Korean women would advance so far so fast," says Lee Eun Young, a feminist activist and lawmaker for the center-left Uri Party. "The 21st century belongs to them."

Lee should know. When she attended elite Seoul National University in the 1970s, women were so scarce that there wasn't a single ladies' room on campus. This past February, by contrast, women at the same university's graduation ceremony took top honors at 11 out of 16 colleges. And those aren't the only impressive numbers going around. The rate of female political participation, measured by the number of female legislators, has more than doubled in the past five years, rising from 6 percent in 2000 to 13 percent now (still lower than in the United States, at 14 percent, but considerably higher than in Japan, with 7 percent). Of 110 judges newly appointed in February, 54, or 49 percent, were women. During the past two years Korea has seen its first female minister of Justice, Supreme Court justice and Constitutional Court justice. The share of women who pass the competitive senior-level civil-servant exam has risen from 2 percent in 1990 to 34 percent last year. "When it comes to women's rights, Korea has achieved in a single generation what Western countries took a century to achieve," says Park Mi Ra, a journalist who founded IF, one of the South's most influential feminist magazines. "Korea is becoming a benchmark for neighboring Asian nations."

There are several reasons for the dramatic rise in female fortunes, but one of the most important is the explosion of grassroots civic activism that's swept South Korea over the past two decades. Women played an important role in the democracy movement that toppled the country's dictators in the 1980s, and since then they've done their best to keep feminism in the forefront of the broader push for change. As the Uri Party's leader, President Roh Moo Hyun has made gender equality a powerful part of his crusade against Korea's old elite.

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