Academic journal article Development and Society

Work and Family Policy Framing and Gender Equality in South Korea: Focusing on the Roh Moo-Huyn and Lee Myung-Bak Administrations *

Academic journal article Development and Society

Work and Family Policy Framing and Gender Equality in South Korea: Focusing on the Roh Moo-Huyn and Lee Myung-Bak Administrations *

Article excerpt


This research aims to identify the possibilities and limitations in realizing a feminist agenda through the state. To this end, we conduct a critical policy frame analysis through feminist perspectives on work and family policy that emerged as a means to deal with the demographic problems in South Korea since the mid-2000s, and discuss its implications for gender equality.

The work and family issue has historically been of great interest within the field of Korean feminist movements. Since the 1980s, feminists have consistently demanded the abolition of forced retirement upon marriage, the extension of the maternity leave period and the social sharing of its costs, the provision of paid parental leave and family care leave, the introduction of a policy for men's participation in childcare, and an increase in public childcare facilities. Such demands from feminist movements aimed to secure women's economic independence, gender-equal employment rights, and motherhood rights. In campaigning for these rights, Korean feminists sought to fundamentally transform unequal gender relations based on the gender division of labor (Kim and Ryu 2008). However, these demands from feminist movements were not widely accepted, and policies introduced following these demands were marginalized within national policy.

Work and family policy in Korea was considered increasingly important within national policy only after it became part of the 'national project' (Kim 2009, p. 27) in response to demographic problems of low fertility and population aging in the mid-2000s. Not only was the public expenditure on childcare increased significantly1 alongside the expansion of the childcare leave period and its generous coverage and benefits, but also the paternity leave and family care leave that feminist movements had long demanded were introduced without strong oppositions from the mainstream political actors. The phrase 'work and family balance' that had been used limitedly in feminist movements became increasingly common in public speeches from top-level decision-makers, such as the president and other ministers. Finally, 'work and family policy' was officially entitled as a major policy created through an amendment to the Act on Equal Employment that changed into the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation.

The mainstreaming of the feminist agenda contains both potential and danger in terms of transformation of gender relations. On the one hand, it can provide opportunities to more effectively address issues of gender inequality by encouraging actors with more financial, organizational, and human resources to lead the agenda, when compared with the potential of feminists existing outside the state. On the other hand, such mainstreaming of an apparently feminist policy agenda where political agents act with interests other than gender equality could weaken core feminist politics and limit the introduction of any reformative policy. It also involves the danger of contributing to the reproduction of the unequal norms and values of the mainstream. It is expected that the political ideologies of the mainstreaming policy actors and the opportunities of feminist movements to access the institutional policies bring about differences to the extent of possibilities and limitations. However, despite the differences in political actors, the dominant norms and values that the state has historically pursued at length also operate as an important factor for gender equality.

In this context, we examine differences and similarities of the work and family policy frames between the Roh Moo-hyun government and the Lee Myung-bak government, the two politically opposing governments after the emergence of work and family policy as a way to deal with the social problems of low fertility and aging population. There is an interesting contrast between the two governments in relation to the goal of this research. …

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