Female lawmakers emerging in South Korea

February 21, 2013

By MICHIKO KAWAHARA/ Senior Staff Writer

SEOUL--As a university janitor, Kim Soon-ja struggled for workers' rights and better working conditions and even organized a labor union. When it came time to campaign for doubling the country's minimum wage, Kim, 57, went a step further and entered the 2012 presidential race.

Calling for a wage hike from 4,580 won (366 yen, or $3.90) to 10,000 won, Kim emerged as a candidate from the growing number of non-regular workers in a country where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening.

And she had her ardent supporters: One day in December, on a busy street in the capital city, a group of young people were singing the pledge "Minimum wage of 10,000 won!" to the tune of a Christmas song.

Despite the enthusiastic backing, Kim soon-ja lost.

It was another woman, 60-year-old Park Geun-hye, who won the election and will become South Korea's first female president.

The outcome wasn't the only notable facet of the election. The race itself, with four female candidates in a field of seven, was a dramatic change from the previous election in 2007, when all 12 contenders were men.

The abrupt about-face, which has seen women from all walks of life take to the political stage, is thanks largely to the country's quota system, introduced in 2000 by former President Kim Dae-jung.

The system initially required that at least 30 percent of candidates under proportional representation to the unicameral National Assembly should be women. The percentage was further increased to "at least 50 percent." The system was also strengthened to ensure that female candidates would be placed evenly on the ballot rather than lumped together at the end. It also requires political parties to make efforts to ensure that 30 percent of candidates in each constituency are women.

But the picture is still far from simple: Women aren't the only supporters of female candidates.

Most of Park's supporters, for instance, were older men, as could be seen at one of her rallies.

To the prompt, "Who will be the first woman president?" came a chant of loud male voices, "Park Geun-hye!"

An activist from a women's organization expressed her amazement at the sight: "These are the same people who used to say, 'Female politicians have never even served in the army!'"

One female MP, You Seung-hee, 52, was the director of the women's bureau of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party under President Kim Dae-jung's administration.

"With his wife being involved in the women's movement, Mr. Kim was concerned about women's participation in politics," You recalled. "Women were unified under (Kim Dae-jung's) administration, which pushed forward policies for women."

The first barrier for a woman who wanted to run for an election was to receive endorsement by her party. So in order to increase the number of female lawmakers, You said she felt there needed to be a compulsive framework.

Kim Jung-sook, then an opposition lawmaker and the head of a special committee on the status of women of the National Assembly, said female lawmakers both in the ruling and opposition parties joined forces and did "intense behind-the-scenes work" to persuade senior party officials and those who were opposed to the quota system.

"Some female lawmakers were against the introduction of a quota system on the grounds that it was unfair," Kim Jung-sook, 66, recalled.

But their efforts paid off, and the bill was submitted as a political party law amendment with the names of 48 influential members of the ruling and opposition parties.

It passed the next day.

The changes that followed were noteworthy, said Kim Won-hong, a researcher at the Korean Women's Development Institute.

Female lawmakers were generally enthusiastic about submitting bills, which naturally influenced their male counterparts, Kim Won-hong, 56, said.

"As a result, people's interest in education, welfare and culture has grown," he said.

With the quota system being a temporary statute, there have been no constitutional challenges.

But there have been less desirable side effects, too.

"There are women who have little political consciousness or who are unqualified as legislators," Kim Jung-sook, one of the architects behind the system, said bluntly.

"Male members, who recommend the candidates, tend to recruit as many beautiful, shapely (female) candidates who are obedient to men as they like," she said. "We have to create a system in which better qualified people can be recommended."


Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, a United Nations organization, said during her visit to Japan in November 2012, that democracy is not only about voting but about representation.

"Women's representation is also a matter of a functioning and thriving democracy," the former Chilean president said in her lecture at a symposium on gender equality in Tokyo. "As women's experiences are different from men's, their voices and insights need to be heard and taken into account to craft effective policies."

"I am a proponent of temporary special measures, such as quotas," she said. "Without special measures, it will take too long to achieve gender parity."

Bachelet, 61, added that whether a country implements such special measures is a matter of political will.

One country that has dramatically increased the ratio of female government representatives during the past decade is Rwanda.

Ethnic conflict there descended into a civil war, which triggered a genocide causing 800,000 deaths in 1994.

The country's post-conflict goal has been the unification of its peoples.

Article 9 of the new Constitution, created in 2003, provides that the country "commits itself that women are granted at least 30 percent of posts in decision-making organs."

It also provides that 30 percent of the 80-member lower house, or 24 seats, should be granted to women, two to young members elected by the National Youth Council and one to a disabled person elected by the Federation of the Associations of the Disabled. The remaining members are elected by votes.

Currently, women account for 56 percent of the lower house, the highest ratio in the world.

In the 26-member upper chamber, too, at least 30 percent of the seats must be held by women.

Rose Mukantabana, the 51-year-old speaker of the lower house, was chosen for one of the seats reserved for women, as her endeavors for the rights of women and children had been recognized.

"The rulers before the genocide divided people, so that not many women were allowed to receive education," she said through an interpreter. "But the present government set a goal so all the people can grow together."

"If you have both hands, why not use them?" she asked. "If (the government) uses both hands, it can make the country rich faster."

To do so requires understanding by top officials and, on women's part, willingness to work.

In a country that is growing fast, the world's "number-one ratio of women lawmakers" must naturally encourage women in the business world and raise the level of education.

Indeed, the Constitution, created under strong presidential leadership, encourages women's participation in order to unify the nation.

On the other hand, the Constitution prohibits speech that can incite confrontation and press freedom is limited, proving that no system is entirely without flaws.

Even so, it is time we re-evaluate our own system for electing representatives.

By MICHIKO KAWAHARA/ Senior Staff Writer
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Kim Soon-ja, a janitor and a South Korean presidential candidate, makes a campaign speech in Seoul in December 2012. (Michiko Kawahara)

Kim Soon-ja, a janitor and a South Korean presidential candidate, makes a campaign speech in Seoul in December 2012. (Michiko Kawahara)

  • Kim Soon-ja, a janitor and a South Korean presidential candidate, makes a campaign speech in Seoul in December 2012. (Michiko Kawahara)
  • Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women and former Chilean president, speaks at a symposium in Tokyo in November 2012. (Michiko Kawahara)

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