In 'Madame Park', South Korea sees first potential female leader


South Korea has the chance Wednesday to elect a woman to its top office, an unprecedented step in a nation long dominated by boardrooms of men and ranked only slightly ahead of most Islamic countries when it comes to gender equality.

The outcome of the presidential election is hardly clinched: Conservative Park Geun-hye — known to her supporters as Madame Park — must hold off liberal Moon Jae-in, who in recent weeks has slashed Park's lead in polls from several percentage points to nearly zero.

But a Park victory would represent a major symbolic breakthrough in a region underpinned by Confucianism, a Chinese-born philosophy that says women should be obedient to their husbands. Until seven years ago, South Korean women did not have equal inheritance rights. South Korea's wage gap between men and women is the widest among fully industrialized countries.

This presidential election, according to most analysts, is not a referendum on gender issues. Voters have judged the two leading candidates mostly on their economic agendas, and to a lesser extent on their strategies in dealing with North Korea. Moon and Park have outlined competing policies to help women in the workplace, but in her 16 years as a legislator, Park showed no particular passion for women's issues.

Park is viewed by South Koreans not as a feminist but as a traditional power figure. Her father, Park Chung-hee, gained power in a 1961 military coup and ruled the country for 18 years. Park Geun-hye, who has never married, served briefly as the nation's first lady after her mother was killed in an assassination attempt that missed its real target, her father.

If she becomes president, Park could help normalize the idea of women holding positions of power, opening the door for others at universities, in the corporate world or in government. But some gender studies experts here say her rise would offer few applicable examples for women about how to break Korea's glass ceiling. The greatest lesson might be a dispiriting one: If you want to become a female leader, it helps if you're the child of a president.

"Most accomplished South Korean women started from the ground level and have worked their way up while facing discrimination," said Kim Hyun-young, a professor of gender studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. "Park is a different case because she reached her current position thanks to her father's political glory."

Park's campaign team has tried in recent weeks to emphasize her qualifications as a "fully prepared female president," as one poster reads. The message comes at a time when, despite the gender gap, Koreans increasingly see gender equality as a national priority. In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 93 percent of South Koreans said women should have equal rights and 71 percent said more changes were still needed.

Koreans young and old can rattle off the female virtues traditionally held in high esteem here. Women are viewed as disciplined, competent and skilled at managing money, a responsibility they undertake in both traditional and modern households.

Park has alluded to those virtues during her campaign. She said in a recent speech that South Korea should vote for a "motherly leader" who can handle another potential global economic crisis.

"Male presidents in South Korea have repeatedly been caught up in power struggles and corruption and have failed to realize public dreams," Park said. "But women can solve many of the problems that men cannot fix."

A spokesman for Moon's campaign, Park Kwang-on, told Korean journalists several months ago that it was "disingenuous" for Park to use her gender as a campaign strategy when she has "never had to share women's worries and hardships."

Park has pledged to introduce a quota system for female professors and increase the number of women in the cabinet. She also wants to expand state-sponsored child-care services, encourage men to take paternity leave and offer tax breaks or subsidies to companies with strong female representation.

According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries in gender equality. Two of five college-educated women don't have jobs. The male dominance is still ingrained in business culture, and many major companies still routinely end nights of mandated drinking at "room salons," where hostesses flirt with the customers.

But the country is making some progress. In 2009, women outnumbered men in universities. Women have held spots on the Supreme Court and at the top of the Justice Ministry, a traditionally powerful job. Over the past 12 years, the number of female lawmakers in South Korea has tripled, and women hold 15 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

Until this year, only two women — both marginal candidates — had run for president. One of them, Kim Ok-seon, who ran in 1992 and was famous for wearing men's suits, won 0.4 percent of the vote. But this year, in addition to Park, two other female candidates are in the race, though they have no chance of winning. Another woman, ultraliberal Lee Jung-hee, dropped out.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all