Case shows it still pays to be a man

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2006, 12:00am

A ruling by a district court suggests the country's Confucian, patriarchal tradition retains a firm grip on Korean society, despite a steady improvement in women's rights in South Korea in recent years.

Earlier this week, a Seoul district court ruled that the uneven distribution of family assets between men and women did not violate the rights of women.

The decision ended a lawsuit bought by 27 women belonging to the same clan in a dispute over the proceeds from the sale of family land, which raised more than US$13 million. At a family meeting it was decided the male head of households would receive US$40,000 of the assets, while the married women would only receive US$16,000.

The women brought the case demanding a more equal distribution of the money. Although the court said the uneven allocation was not ideal for gender equality, the judges decided that such a practice 'can be tolerated within certain reasonable limits considering that clans are based on the paternal line'.

The ruling was swiftly criticised by women's groups.

'The result [of this decision] is to discriminate and strip away the rights of some members of the same clan. This ruling clearly needs to be re-examined,' said Kim Eun-kyung of the Korea Women's Hotline.

Activists point out that the ruling is at odds with a Supreme Court decision last year that recognised the rights of women to become full members of their paternal clan, even though traditionally, on marriage, they leave their clan of birth to join their husbands' families.

'The Supreme Court has already ruled that it is unfair to exclude women members in dealing with clan affairs based on the premise that the clan is primarily based on its male members. This new ruling contradicts that,' said Park Bok-soon, of the Korean Women's Development Institute.

The patrilineal system is inherited from Korea's interpretation of Confucian teaching and has been the main way in which Korean society has been organised. However, under the last Korean Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) this has resulted in the systematic demolition of women's liberty.

'Women became unimportant in their own right and were considered mere links between the father's and mother's line,' according to Hildi Kang, author of The Legacy Lingers On: Korean Confucianism and the Erosion of Women's Rights.

To this day, clans remain the foundation of Korean society. Members of each clan share the same name, such as Kim, Park or Lee and each clan is associated with a specific geographic location on the peninsula.