On 19 December 2012 Park Geun-hye won the tightly fought election that would make her in February 2013 the first female president for South Korea, which ranked 115th in the 2009 World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index. In 2005, the country had seen the appointment of its first female prime minister, Han Myeong-Sook (b 1944), a former Minister of Gender Equality (2001-2003), a long time progressive politician, and graduate of Ewha Woman’s University. Park in contrast represented the ruling conservative New Frontier party and had no history of feminist politics. Like many other ‘firsts’, Park, who trained as an engineer and was first elected to the National Assembly in 1998, is a member of a political dynasty, the daughter of former dictator, general, and President Park Chung-hee (1961-79). Her father, who was assassinated (as was her mother), remains a divisive figure in South Korea, remembered both for uneven regional industrial development and for jailing opponents. Nick-named ‘the ice queen’, a moniker that implies qualities like Margaret Thatcher’s ‘the iron lady’, Park has never been known as a feminist. She nevertheless promised a ‘women’s revolution’, including child care. To distance herself from the influential business interests closely associated with the ruling party and the country’s massive gap between rich and poor, Park presented herself as a maternal figure that recalled something of the appeal of her contemporary, the German chancellor Angela Merkel and of Elizabeth the First, Britain’s ‘virgin queen’ whom Park cites as a model. Her claim that “I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to. You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics” was powerful in a nation where kinship is prized (McElroy). As the Executive Director of the Center for Korean Women and Politics (CKWP) observed, however, Park was a female leader “only in biological terms” and lacked any history of promoting equality (channelnewsasia.com). The CKWP and the Women’s News rated Park’s liberal opponent better on women’s rights. Unmarried and childless, Park appeared a surprising choice in a nation characterized by Confucian beliefs and substantial gender gaps in most aspects of its economic, social, and political life. Indeed the vast majority of feminists supported the opposition and there are suspicions that Park’s candidacy was a ploy by the old guard to stay in power. Her gender allowed them to bask in the appearance of change while drawing on the pervasive, among conservatives and older voters, near-worship of her dictator father.
Further Reading & Resources
“Park Geun-Hye adds to Asian women’s rise to power,” 21 December 2012, channelnewsasia.com, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/1243955/1/.html
“The Situation of Women in South Korea,” http://www.20-first.com/1360-0-the-situation-of-women-in-south-korea.html
Patrick Boehler, “Behind the Story: TIME’s Emily Rauhala Dicusses South Korea’s First Female President,” http://world.time.com/2012/12/20/behind-the-story-times-emily-rauhala-discusses-south-koreas-first-female-president-2/
Pino Cazzaniga, “Hann Myung-Sook, a Christian woman now prime minister,” Help AsiaNews.it, http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Han-Myung-Sook,-a-Christian-woman-now-prime-minister-5965.html
Justin McCurry, “Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/19/park-geun-hye-south-korea-election
Heike Hermanns, “Women in South Korean Politics: A Long Road to Equality,” Portal: Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies , v. 3, no. 2 (2006), http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/134
Michael Kugelman, ed., Edging Toward Full Empowerment? South Korean Women in the Workplace and the Political Arena, Asian Program. Special Report. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. September 2006.
Damien McElroy, “Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/southkorea/9755820/Park-Geun-hye-becomes-South-Koreas-first-female-president.htmlAlexander Mette, “Park Geun-hye: South Korea’s First Female President Carries a Complicated Legacy,” policymic, http://www.policymic.com/articles/21153/park-geun-hye-south-korea-s-first-female-president-carries-a-complicated-legacy