South Korea Elects Its First Woman President, But What Next?

South Korea has elected its first woman president, Park Geun-hye, in a closely fought election. Taking the presidency by a narrow 3.5 percent margin, the conservative Saenuri party’s Park will be moving back into the presidential house she called home as a young girl.

Park’s father was Park Chung-hee, a polarizing figure in Korean politics who pushed South Korea into being an economic powerhouse at the cost of individual freedoms. With authoritarian cruelty, he tortured dissenters and rewrote the nation’s constitution to bolster his own power in the 1960s. His strongman tactics earned him many worshipers and many critics, a national turmoil that his daughter was able to witness firsthand. You could say Park was groomed for her presidential ascent, given that she became the acting First Lady after her mother was murdered in 1974, and continued to be engaged in Korea’s political realm after her father was assassinated five years later.

Park will be coming into power at a time when many citizens are worried about the country’s future. The cornerstone of Park’s campaign was economic reform, a promise she will have to make good on in the coming term.

We can only hope her zest for the economy doesn’t eclipse the desperate need for gender equity in a still very patriarchal South Korea. She has a unique opportunity to use the legitimacy her pedigree lends her to transform South Korea into a more egalitarian society. The World Economic Forum ranked South Korea 108th in gender parity, putting it one slot below the United Arab Emirates. On average, women earn 40 percent less than men, hold only 12 percent of managerial positions at 1,500 major firms and fill only 15 percent of the seats in parliament.

In her run, Park pledged to ignite a women’s revolution if she was elected, promising financial aid for childcare and incentives for firms to hire more women. Now that she has made history by winning the presidency, let’s hope her campaign promises weren’t just political pandering.

Photo of Park Geun-hye courtesy of gameboybb100 via Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. As a South Korean female voter, I am appalled and disappointed to have her as our first female president. I think it is more of a case of Asian patriarchy and lineage-based hierarchy valued over her gender, rather than a sign of gender equality. Women voters in their 50s-60s voted for her because of the disturbingly prevalent, near-religious worship of Dictator Park and his wife, and simply assuming that women politicians will pursue favorable policies for women, although in reality it is not always the case. During her years in office she did not participate in any women’s rights legislations either, despite what her camp laed people to believe. Many feminists and young women are afraid that Park’s painfully obvious shortcomings as a politician (barely keeps promises, terrible orater and debater, doesn’t understand her own policies, speaks and thinks in the rhetoric of the 70s dictatorship) combined with her status as president will justify systemized+everyday misogyny even more; conservatives are highly likely to cite “female president” as a sufficient enough evidence for gender equality and justification for overlooking gender ineaquality in various sectors of society. Freedom of speech,which was already suffering under current president Lee’s conservative regime, will likely undergo the same difficulties or even worse conditions, given Park’s authoritarian mindset at previous (disturbingly overreacting) reactions to media criticisms. It’s also depressing to think that majority voters preferred the illusion of prosperity during the dictatorship (I am saying “illusion” because the economy was actually weakening by the late 70s, causing one of the reasons for the 1979 Buma democratic movement) over numerous human rights violations and complete disregard of democracy. We really can’t hope for the best rather than brace for the worst.

    • Thanks for the info, Oli. It sounds like Park is going to be a gender decoy and is not going to make a feminist difference in South Korea. Sad.

  2. Wow. Harsh comments but I agree with you. I wish a miracle happens and our new president brings some changes to our highly disrespectful society to women where girls are raised to look only pretty and skinny enough to marry a rich guy and being fragile and weak and sometimes even stupid considered as some sort of virtue. In this poisonous culture, women themselves refuse to be strong, creative and intelligent.

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