Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Korea's Campaign School

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Korea's Campaign School

Article excerpt

Prejudice and cronyism traditionally bar Korean women from politics but a non-profit training centre offers keys to success -- from fashion tips to campaign strategies

In the industrial city of Ulsan, Lim Myung-sook represents a rare coup in Korean society, a woman in a position of public power. In this traditionally male-dominated nation, the 45-year-old local assemblywoman is one of the success stories of the non-profit Center for Korean Women and Politics (CKWP).

Historically, the public visage of Korea has been a male one, while a woman's role has been confined largely to the private world of the home, a fact reinforced by the still strongly persistent values of Confucianism and a male-run corporate world. "Korea is not really feminized at all," says Sohn Bong-Scuk, a political scientist and the founder of the CKWP. "The value system has prohibited women from getting involved in politics," says Sohn, pointing to the fact that municipalities and the National Assembly have seen just a handful of female representatives.

Sohn established the CKWP in 1990 to help bridge the gap between the ideal of equal representation and reality. Funded largely by foundation grants, the center employs a staff of eight and operates on an annual budget of $180,000. For Sohn, there are three major obstacles to greater female representation: the powerful male-oriented political culture, a deep-rooted old-boys network and economics.

"Korean political parties are very much private, person-centered parties with many medium-level bosses. If you want to be an important person in the party you must belong to someone else in the family tree, so it's not easy for a woman to enter that kind of informal inner-circle," says Sohn.

Most women also don't have the large sums of money needed to run for office. By law, national assembly candidates must have a minimum of $210,000 for their campaigns. However Sohn says some candidates will spend up to two million dollars.

Backing with strings attached

Furthermore, corporations have proved unwilling to back female candidates. "When business or industrial sectors support a candidate, there is a kind of string attached. In the case of a woman candidate, they don't feel they'll get anything back," says Sohn. "As a minority in politics, women are very cautious and tend to be less involved in any dirty business. They are also usually first-year congresswomen so they are not in positions of power yet to help them."

Lim Myung-sook struggled to raise the $9,000 minimum to run for office in her local assembly. But with the financial support of the CKWP and another local non-profit group, she managed to raise the minimum but far less than most candidates. However, more than money and the expected prejudices stood between her and office: Lim was sorely lacking in political experience. In 1994, she was working as an environmental campaign activist when friends suggested she run in the upcoming local assembly election. While preparing her bid, she received a call from Sohn who invited her to attend the center's "Campaign School."

Lim attended a three-day session with about 40 other women, five of whom were also candidates in other local assembly races. …

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